ALEXIS PENNY'S BLOG
A. T. Casdagli with Alexis Penny in Crete
on 1 June 1991 for the 50th anniversary of
his capture there on 1 June 1941
Blue Tattooed Numbers
My father never talked about the war, at least not to me he didn’t. Although he left me everything when he died, it wasn’t until one bitter winter night in early 2012 that I first read his prisoner of war diary, now published as Prouder Than Ever by www.cylixpress.co.uk. I cried and I was shocked. I didn’t know he’d suffered so much or been so brave. He’d never said a word.
Although my father never talked about the war – and neither did my mother, a spy with the Special Operations Executive – the war was always with us. We had a reverence for food. None of us ever left a scrap on our plates. Nothing was ever thrown away.
My Mother Wendy
And my father always slept with a framed photograph by his bed of the ovens of the concentration camp of Dachau, where the bodies of 32,000 people murdered there were cremated. By the photo would be a book. The only books he ever read were books about the war. Most of them had photographs too. When, aged four, I was entered into a fancy dress competition by my parents, I went as a Red Cross nurse, for their parcels saved his life in prison. I didn’t win anything and it didn’t matter at all.
When I was almost six, we went to Yugoslavia, as it was then, for a holiday. We went to the seaside and stayed in a hotel with barbed wire round the garden. The beach was guarded by two soldiers with rifles and it was hot and bleak with a few umbrellas against the heat. One day, on the beach, my father saw a woman to our left, sitting not far from us with a man. They were both good-looking. My father turned to my mother and said excitedly,
‘I must go over,’ he said. After a few minutes, when he and the couple had shaken hands warmly, he beckoned us over to meet Magda and Paul. And that’s when I fell in love for the first time, as soon as I saw Paul’s face. We all spent the rest of the holiday together. When the dreadful last day came and we had to say goodbye, Paul gave my parents a topaz to give to me when I grew up. They did, and I had made it into a fine ring. And when I look at it, as I do now, I see again the hot bare beach with its several umbrellas, the soldiers in the background, the blue tattooed numbers on Magda’s arm and how brightly my father’s eyes were shining and how humbly he approached her.
Sleeping With Mosquitoes
By Chance In A Car Park
In a car park by the Fort of Chania, a town on the northern coast of Crete, covered in dust from a dawn start, we were saying the very last words of the last take of last shot on the last day of filming for Capture in Crete when, suddenly, a man appeared between our two filmmakers, James Morton and Elias Staris, videoing us on his mobile phone.
It turned out to be the journalist, Giannis Aggelakis, who, looking for somewhere to park had, by chance, come across us.
That night, he interviewed me for the Cretan newspaper, Agonas Tis Kritis. His article is the first time Casdagli’s story has been told in Greek. The headline says ‘Fuck Hitler! – the story of the English Major of Greek origin, who fought in the Battle of Crete and resisted with the Nazis with a needle.’ You don’t have to speak Greek to enjoy it as the photos are great too so do click on this link:
Needling The Nazis
I wrote this article for Fine Cell Work’s Prisoners Newsletter. On reading it, Jenni Parker, their Volunteer and Programmes Manager, wrote ‘A huge thank you for such an inspiring piece. It’s always great to have such interesting stories to share with the prisoners we work with.’ For more about this wonderful charity, please see my blog From A Prisoner’s Daughter below.
The Mark Coleman Embroidery
A T Casdagli had a knack for friendship, and, as Prouder Than Ever relates, friendship was critical to his surviving four years as a Prisoner of War in Germany. My father’s friends were old and young, from every part of his life, in many parts of the world. Even I was one of them, for he would often sign his letters to me ‘Y.O.P.’ which stood for ‘Your Old Pal’.
Although he died almost twenty years ago, it seems Casdagli hasn’t lost this gift, for people who’ve never met him like him and want, in their turn, to do something for him. Of these, one is Mark Coleman of SDS Heritage.
At the terrific A T Casdagli POW exhibition in Harrow School’s Old Speech Room Gallery, it was suggested by Peter Hunter, who, amongst other important duties, is the Chair of the Treasures Committee there, that my father’s schoolboy diaries and albums, characteristically meticulous and fascinating, should be digitalised. He gave me the details of SDS Heritage (http://www.sds-heritage.co.uk/ ) and I subsequently gave the works to Mark and his colleagues. When I received the works digitally, I was astounded. I could read details and information that previously been impossible to make out. Two years later, and Mark and SDS Heritage have now digitalised all the Casdagli archives I possess, thus preserving them for posterity.
Something Dad did for his family and friends – as you can see from the About Casdagli page of this website – was to make embroideries especially for them. So I’ve given Mark this embroidery, sewn in cross-stitch by Casdagli at the age of 80, to thank him as I believe the immaculate digitalisation of Casdagli’s works on paper, from his 1920 Schoolboy Diary to his War Log of 1940-1945, is just, were he living now, what my father would delightedly commission himself.
From a Prisoner’s Daughter
Esther Freud, the novelist, who I’d never met before but whose books I’d read, gave me the card for Fine Cell Work’s Christmas Fair. When she explained, ‘It’s a sale of wonderful embroideries and sewing made by prisoners,’ I was astonished. Prisoners embroidering! Just like Dad! I felt overwhelmed and tried to steady myself. As soon as I could, I went on the Fine Cell Work website and was completely enthralled. I immediately changed all my plans for the day of the Fair so I could go. My father, Maj A T Casdagli, was a prisoner of war in Germany. Whilst in prison, he suffered enormously from hunger and cold, but the worst enemy, as any prisoner knows, was boredom. One freezing day in December 1941, he was given a bit of canvas and, with wool from a fellow prisoner’s pullover, started his first embroidery. When it was finished, it cheered everyone up as in the narrow border round the edge, he’d embroidered, in Morse code, ‘FUCK HITLER’ three and a half times! At great personal risk, he pinned this work up on the walls of the all the prisons he was in, but, fortunately for him, the Germans never noticed!
The Fuck Hitler Embriodery
The work on show in the Christmas Fair was awesome. I loved the beauty, exquisite quality, skill, ingenuity and wit of it and am all admiration for Fine Cell Work itself. I took a couple of my small father’s prison embroideries with me and was deeply moved when I saw them in the hands of two former prisoners who were present and still embroider. When one said, ‘Nice work, very neat,’ I felt so proud for Dad. People are imprisoned for many different reasons, some just and some unjust, but in relation to time, all prisoners are the same. I think this embroidery Dad made of a verse of a poem written by Oscar Wilde, when a prisoner, just about sums it up. Thank heavens for the brilliant Fine Cell Work and for its long-devoted supporter, Esther Freud.
Casdagli’s embroidery of a verse from The Ballard of Reading Gaol
Among The True Elect
I don’t think my father, A T Casdagli, ever met Patrick Leigh Fermor, famous for his abduction of the German General Kreipe on Crete on the night of 26 April 1944. But it is impossible that Paddy who lived in Tara, the now legendary villa on Gezira Island in Cairo, during the war, did not know the name Casdagli. The magnificent Villa Casdagli, sadly torched by rioters on 1 February 2013, was a well-known Cairo landmark, and the Casdagli family, who lived there, were extremely wealthy and influential. I can’t be sure, and, in the absence of documented material either one way or another, it is, perhaps, permissible to speculate it’s highly likely that they did meet – and if they did not, then they should have done! Surely, they could have encountered each other at Shepheard’s Hotel or the Gezira Sporting Club in Cairo or brushed shoulders in Athens at the GB – the Grande Bretagne Hotel – or, perhaps, even better, sat down together in a simple kafeneon in a village square somewhere in their beloved Crete. It’s in Crete I most easily picture them. I see them handsome, fit and bloody-minded, bent over a jug of wine and a few olives, comparing notes delightedly and lapsing, perhaps almost inevitably, from their native English into their fluent, beautifully learnt Greek. However, I did met Patrick Leigh Fermor and the circumstances that lead to that meeting are, I think, extraordinary enough to warrant telling.
In September 1964, aged 16, I was travelling with my mother on a boat from Venice to Piraeus. I was to spend almost a year in Athens on my own before going to the Central School of Speech and Drama to train as an actress. Our boat stopped for half a day in Corfu. Although it was lashing with rain, my mother and I disembarked to explore the town. We didn’t get very far. A storm broke and we rushed into the nearest place to shelter, a cavernous, darkly lit, antiquated café, which didn’t feel Greek at all. It overlooked a large patch of ground, turning in the downpour to chocolate-coloured mud. Apart from a stocky man sitting pensively at the top of a table facing the door, who didn’t look Greek at all, we were quite alone. I noticed the man, while we warmed up, occasionally look at us. This wasn’t unusual. My mother, Wendy, a Captain in the Special Operations Executive in Cairo during the war, was still very beautiful with glorious red hair.
Suddenly, the door swung open and in ran two men, muffled like gangsters against the weather. They greeted the man at the table, who now ordered lot of drinks, and sat down and all three chatted loudly. Due to the deluge outside, we couldn’t quite hear their conversation, but it was definitely in English. Then a brandy arrived at our table for my mother and an invitation to join them. One of the men looked just like the actor, Albert Finney, whom I really admired and who, like Dad, was born in Salford. We went over and soon learnt our host was Lawrence Durrell, the patch of mud a cricket pitch, the café Italian, and the man who looked like Albert Finney was Albert Finney and the third man was the film director, Karel Reisz. When Durrell discovered I was going to live in Athens for some months on my own, he told me I had to meet an artist called Maro Stathatos, neé Vatimbella. He scribbled her address and her telephone number on a cigarette packet and assured me – and my mother- that she’d make sure I’d meet ‘all the right people’ and that I’d adore her. He was right on both counts and, in spite of the great age difference, Maro and I became firm friends.
I left Athens in the summer and, although we corresponded, didn’t see Maro again until, in 1987, she travelled to London to stay with her son, John Stathatos, the poet and photographer. She was now in a wheelchair and, I believe, about to be diagnosed with some kind of dementia. John decided to throw a party in her honour. Only her most cherished English friends were invited, probably a dozen of us, and among them would be Paddy, who happened to be in London. The party was in the top room of John’s house in North London, under the eaves of the roof. I don’t know how John managed to get Maro and wheelchair up there but there she was, exquisitely dressed and radiant, her eyes sparkling. In his poem about Maro, A Portrait of Theodora, Durrell perfectly describes her look:
‘I recall her by a freckle of gold
In the pupil of one eye, an odd
Before long Paddy arrived. He was everything that is said about him, charming, debonair and a wonderful raconteur. Maro and he were thrilled to see each other again. Together they set the party to a different rhythm, of other times full of a wildness and gaiety that only sheer intelligence and a shared past can bring about. It was delightful to see them sparring, reminiscing and teasing each other. Then Maro said,
‘Paddy, do tell us the story of the General, and how you kidnapped him! It’s a marvellous story and you tell it so well.’
Paddy looked rather embarrassed.
‘Oh, Maro, it was so long ago and everyone knows what happened anyway.’
‘No,’ said Maro quite firmly, ‘you must tell it.’
Something in her voice made him look up and, in that split second, something flashed between them. Maro was definitely demanding of Paddy not to refuse her in front of her guests. I also believe, in this moment, these friends for so many decades both realised this was the last time they’d ever meet, which was correct. Maro died two years later. But there was something else that does not go easily into words. Durrell’s poem about Maro ends,
‘Now only my experience recognizes her
Too late, among the other great survivors
Of the city’s rage, and places her among
The champions of love – among the true elect!’
If Maro was ‘among the true elect’ then, of course, Paddy was too. She was reminding him of that and inviting him to do something special with her and for her, something we would all remember, something to kick death down the stairs, something that without her asking it of him, he could not or would not be willing to do. There was a pause. Paddy looked down into his glass. I held my breath. I thought he was going to refuse her. Then he said, ‘Well…’ and he was off.
He gave the story a hell of a spin. Maro shed her years and looked just like she looks in the photograph below. She sat in her wheelchair as if it was a joke and belonged to someone else. She kept feeding Paddy with questions, prompting, cajoling him to go faster, to go back to collect a detail, to go slower so we guests could visualise the scene for ourselves. She was our Queen and Paddy was her gallant and we the guests knew, with adamantine certainty, that we were witnessing – no – that we were part of an extraordinary evening. And when Paddy finished speaking, we guests, as if one, got up to leave. We paid our respects to dear Maro and thanked Paddy again his wonderful re-telling of that powerful, historic affair and left. It was, as you see, quite unforgettable.
Something else gives that evening, in recollection, a special and even more poignant resonance. Only after my mother’s death in 1999 did I learn from several of her closest friends that she and Paddy had had an ffair in Cairo, before she met my father. And an affair is just what it was, apparently – just one of those things – but no less delicious for that! I don’t know if my father ever knew but I wish I had and had been able to tell Paddy I was Wendy’s daughter. O, the slender threads that bind us!
Maro, Paddy and Eve Willis, Alexandria,1941,courtesy of the Imperial War Museum
adapted from my article in The Philhellene, January 2016
Poppy Day, 2015
Casdagli by Haig
Known as Poppy or Remembrance or Day, Armistice Day was first commemorated at the end of the First World War in 1919, as a memorial day for Armed forces who died in the line of duty. In 1954, in the United States of America, it became called Veterans Day and is an official public holiday. Every year, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month at the eleventh hour, two minutes of silence are observed and wreaths are laid at war monuments.
The British Legion, which sells poppies on this day to raise money for war-injured Allied Forces, veterans and their families, was founded by Earl Haig in 1921. Haig had been in command at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, where 600,000 of his men lost their lives. Dad was imprisoned with his son, Dawyck, in Oflag XII-B, Hadamar, Germany, in 1944. There, Dawyck painted this portrait of him. It’s reproduced in Prouder Than Ever with an extraordinary story about it, now also told in more detail in the Kudos magazine on page 88:
I picked this poppy in May in the village of Sphakia, Crete, where over 6000 Allied Forces were captured on 1 June 1941, my father among them, to remember him and all those who have fought, suffered and died in conflict.
ΌΧΙ! NO! Day!
‘Όχι’ means ‘no’ in Greek. On 28 October 1940, Fascist Italy sent an ultimatum to Greece, demanding Greece allow Axis forces to occupy ‘strategic areas’ of its territory or face war. Metaxas said ‘No!’ and Greece entered the Second World War. Όχι Day is still celebrated every year in Greece to commemorate that brave refusal.
Όχι Day, 2014
Prouder Than Ever was published on Όχι Day, 2014 – albeit it only just – see my blog below Making The Impossible Happen! Here’s the waistcoat I made for the first anniversary of Prouder Than Ever which I wore to our Όχι Day party here in London.
Χρονιά πολλά για το ΌΧΙ!
Long live OXI Day!
I first met Mrs Mary Agrafiotou at the Launch of Prouder Than Ever at St Sophia’s Cathedral in London on 23 October 2014. During the evening, she handed me a transcript of an interview she gave to the BBC for their oral history project of the Second World War. It included her account of going to the dreaded Pavlos Melas Barracks in Thessaloniki, as a child in 1942.
On 11 June 1941, many hundreds of prisoners caught in Crete on their way to Germany arrived in cattle trucks at Thessaloniki station in pouring rain. Amongst them was A. T. Casdagli, my father. It was from this station one year later in 1942 that almost the entire Jewish population of the city, over 50,000 people, were taken straight to the concentration camp of Auschwitz in the one of areas of Poland annexed by Nazi Germany. Only 1800 of those came back.
From the station, the prisoners were marched just over three miles to the Pavlos Melas Barracks, a huge transit camp, which was also a death and torture camp where over 1750 ‘undesirables’ were executed between 1941-1944. Casdagli describes the conditions at Pavlos Melas Barracks as being ‘past all belief’.
Greek civilians were also held here. Mary, who was twelve, took food to one of them almost daily. He was a client of her father, who was a lawyer. Amongst the prisoners there, she saw girls and boys, teenagers. Mary told me the story about these young people when we met on the anniversary of the Launch, again at St Sophia’s. These are her words,
‘They must have belonged to the Resistance and they were singing though they knew they were either going to be taken outside the camp to be killed or taken to Germany as labourers, but they were still singing. One day, when I handed the bag with the food and the name of the prisoner to the German guard, I was told the previous morning, with one hundred and seven other men, he was taken outside the camp and killed. His only crime was that being the head of the village committee, he had refused to give up the names of those involved in the Greek Resistance to the Germans. I was in tears on the way home trying to think of what words to tell my parents of his murder. That song the young people were singing keeps in my mind all the time…’
Then Mary sang the song for me and I recorded it. When it has been edited, it will be posted on the website for everyone to hear who would like to, with the words in both Greek and in English. It was a memorable afternoon for us both, hard and joyful in equal measure. At one point, Mary said to me,
‘I’m a war child.’
I agreed. And a very brave one too.
Strawberries In Prison
I learn Greek. Francoise in our Greek class, like me, had a father who was a Prisoner of War. Jean Pierre was a Corporal in the Meteorological Service in the French Army. He was captured on 21 June, 1940 at Padoux in the Vosges in north-eastern France along with many thousand others, including the philosopher and writer, Jean-Paul Sartre, who was also serving as a meteorologist. Next day, France surrendered to Germany.
Jean was imprisoned in Stalag XII-D, Trier in Germany and was sent out daily to labour in a school of agriculture. When he was liberated by the Americans in 1945, he left prison with two small suitcases. In one case were strawberry plants which he brought home and propagated. Since then, Francoise and her sister have continued propagating them and give them to friends. Francoise gave me some of these strawberries plants in April. I planted them in pots because it was cold, but next year they’ll be in the ground. The strawberries are small, but very dark and flavourful. They must have tasted wonderful in prison. No wonder Jean brought them home.
Jean Pierre’s strawberries in my garden
Today is 10 April 2015. On this day in 1906 A. T. Casdagli was born. He was much loved. Here he is, held by his father.
Casdagli had two children, Tony and Alexis Penny. He loved both of them very much and embroidered each a letter.
Tony went into the Navy. When he retired as a Captain, he was awarded the CBE. Before he went to the Investiture at Buckingham Palace, Casdagli prudently made a photocopy of his invitation which had to be given up at the Entrance. Here it is and here he is at the party afterwards. He couldn’t have been more proud of his son!
On this day in 2006, in the Cafe of the Imperial War Museum, to commemorate the centenary of our father’s birth, I shared with Tony what’s come to be known as the ‘Fuck Hitler’ embroidery. Over the next three years, I shared more of the war embroideries with him. They look wonderful on the open staircase of his beautiful house. But on this day not one of them is there! The wall’s bare for they have joined the rest of the exhibits in the Old Speech Room Gallery at Harrow School for the Casdagli/Churchill Exhibition. The show’s being hung as I write. It opens on 23 April, St George’s Day, and runs to 30 June. Do come.
And on this day, as a sort of etheric birthday present (!), James Morton Projects and I have just posted the ‘Prouder Than Ever’ Book Trailer. Here’s the link:
Making the Impossible Happen
“I don’t know how you did that!” gasped the unforgettably gorgeous, warm voice that made you feel life was a party and you were invited.
“Did what?” I asked.
“Ring my mobile and Michael’s at exactly the same time! How did you do that?” asked my friend, Lynda Bellingham.
“Yes, both at once! How did you do that?”
“I have no idea!”
It was, especially since I didn’t have Michael’s number. Michael, Lynda’s husband, is also known as ‘Mr Spain’. Spain’s where they fell in love.
It was 9.25 am on Thursday, 20 October 2014 and I’d phoned for a quick chat. But it wasn’t a great time to call. Lynda wasn’t at home, as I’d thought, but still in hospital, getting over an infection. She had cancer. She’d told me in an email the news wasn’t good: she now only had six to ten weeks to live and couldn’t be at the Launch for Prouder Than Ever, my father’s book, the following week. She’d known Dad – Mr Cas as she called him – since she was thirteen and was ‘devastated’ – her word. She was getting out of hospital on Saturday and she and Michael were going to hunker down in their lovely flat and remember the good times and see friends and family. We arranged I’d ring on Monday and pop up and see her. I only live two bus stops away.
But Lynda didn’t go home on Saturday. She died in hospital in Michael’s arms on Sunday night.
When the news broke on Monday morning, the nation grieved for the passing of the much beloved, amazingly courageous Lynda Bellingham OBE and I was amongst the thousands who suddenly felt bereaved.
I had a lot to do that day and got on with it but I didn’t use the telephone as I couldn’t speak. So I didn’t ring the redoubtable Rob Squires at Pureprint, the printers, to see if there was any news of the book. Rob’s a modern-day hero: gallant, talented, reliable who had, from the start, taken on this project as if Casdagli were his own, which touched me no end.
For unforeseeable reasons that were no one’s fault, printing Prouder Than Ever had got very delayed. That day was the deadline for the book to be delivered but nothing came. No book. No Lynda. Things were not looking good.
Tuesday I spoke to Rob. He was so sorry about Lynda. I asked about the book. He said in a very kind way not to worry and ‘we’re in a good place’. I hung up and, for the first time, seriously imagined how to have a book launch without a book…Well, we could still have the party. We’d got lovely food and wine, wonderful musicians, Greek dancing, a fabulous actor reading powerful extracts from the book. And then I’d just tell everyone how handsome Prouder Than Ever would be. It wasn’t an impossible scenario, just a bit unusual.
On Wednesday, Rob phoned.
“Alexis, what time’s the Launch?”
“7 pm tomorrow night.”
“Yes. Do you think there’ll be any books there, Rob?”
“You’ll have books even if we have to deliver them to the Cathedral.”
“Okay. I’ll check out the parking.”
Late that afternoon the doorbell rang and there was a man with a small white van. He’d driven all the way down from North Wales and delivered one thousand copies of A. T. Casdagli’s Prouder Than Ever to me! And boy oh boy, were they handsome. Then, without so much as a cup of tea, he got back in his van to drive back to Wales.
The next evening, at the Book Launch – which, incidentally, was wonderful, please watch the video at:
– Rob told me on Monday, he’d arrived early at work to find the guys doing the printing – through no fault of their own – were twelve hours’ behind schedule and it was very unlikely Prouder Than Ever could be ready in time. Then the news of Lynda’s death came over the radio just as one of the team was reading her very words on the back cover of the book. How she had known Casdagli. How he was a ‘truly decent human being.’ He read it to the others and said,
“Come on! Let’s pull out all the stops! Let’s do this for Lynda!”
And that’s what they did. They pulled out all the stops. Somehow, the book was printed in Sussex, bound in North Wales and delivered to me in London in less than three days.
And that is how the book of Prouder Than Ever made it in time for its Launch, thanks to Rob, Pureprint and, most of all, thanks to Lynda Bellingham, my beautiful friend, who made the impossible happen.
Hats off to Lynda Bellingham!
Sunday, 28 September 2014
I woke up early to do some work for Phil Irish, who’s designing publicity materials for Prouder Than Ever. I finished at 7.30 and, as Phil lives only a couple of streets away, I pulled jeans and a sweater on over my pyjamas to go round and deliver it. And suddenly I remembered my father doing exactly the same thing. At 5.30 am every morning of every decade he and Mum lived in Highgate Village, London, he’d put some clothes on over his night things, then go out, cross the road to the newsagent, buy a paper from Graham, who worked there, then bring it back to read in bed with Mum.
Dad loved Graham. He got up every morning looking forward to seeing him.
‘Mustn’t be late for Graham,’ he’d say.
Graham was big, shy, young and wore brown. A great friendship grew up between them. Whenever my parents went away, Dad would buy Something for Graham, a small souvenir, a plate, a box, or a pen with the name of the place where they’d been. They gave each other chocolates and cards at Christmas and on birthdays. I tried to find Graham when Dad died to tell him about the funeral but the shop had changed hands and no one there knew him.
Still thinking about Dad and Graham, I walked to Phil’s in the lovely autumn air, popped the stuff through the letterbox then crossed the road to our corner shop, to check out the headlines and see if the croissants they bake there were ready. It was closed. Sunday. I joined three men waiting outside then came a fourth. Is it worth it? I thought. Yes. It’s for Dad and Graham.
They let us in at 8 am on the dot. The croissants weren’t ready so I checked out the headlines. The front page of the Mail said ‘Lynda Bellingham dying. Only weeks to live,’ with a photo of her looking great. That’s Lynda Bellingham as in my childhood friend who’s written such beautiful words for the back jacket of Prouder Than Ever, the Lynda Bellingham who’d texted me yesterday to say she was determined to come to the launch of the book, how exciting it was and how my Dad would be so proud. I’ve known for months her cancer was terminal, although wild horses would not have wrested that secret from me, but I still felt the ground rock.
I paid for the paper and stood there reading her words: ‘I’ve chosen the date I will die’ and I started to cry but then I stopped. Lynda is brave so I’d be too. I knew this was an important moment and asked the man in the shop to take this photo of me and the front page. I’ve cropped the head off as I look heartbroken and that’s not a good look.
Then the croissants came out and filled the shop with their aroma. I bought a couple and walked back. They were still warm when I got home and so was the newspaper I’d clutched to my body. I put it on the table to read later. Then I took the croissants into the sun and ate them with unsalted butter and lots of apricot jam. How delicious they tasted!
Greece, August, 1948.
The Second World War ended three years ago but Greece is still reeling from the effects of the German Occupation and is now in the grip of civil war. It’s being torn apart, neighbour against neighbour, village against village. Volos, a port on the west coast, is in the thick of it. The fighting’s in the mountains behind the town. You can hear the sound of gunfire. It’s always there. And the smell of danger in the air.
What’s next and who and where?
Volos was devastated by Allied bombing, but there’s this new block of apartments overlooking the harbour. It shakes when rockets are fired from warships there up into the mountains where the fighting is. The block shakes too when there’s an earthquake. It’s hard to tell which is which sometimes.
On the third floor of the building, in the apartment at the front with the balcony, live a pair of newlyweds. He’s dark and handsome and she’s beautiful with flaming red hair. They’re tough, British. They’ve both seen and done things they don’t ever want to talk about. He was a prisoner of war for four and half years in Germany and she was a spy, a captain in the SOE (Special Operations Executive). Although he’s Greek by birth, he’s anglicised and is the British Consul in Volos. Lots of people would like to see him dead.
It’s Thursday, 12 August. Every Thursday afternoon in Volos, the dead of both sides are bought into the square and laid out with their boots by their heads for their families to take the bodies. It’s no place for babies and she’s pregnant – any day now. They’ve got to get her to a hospital where she’ll be safe. That Thursday, he drives her to a makeshift airstrip in his jeep where an RAF helicopter is waiting. The young pilot blanches at the sight of her. She’s huge. Too big for the seat so they tie her in with rope. Leaving the man behind, the young pilot and the pregnant woman take off. It is 200 miles to Athens, their destination, and they’re worried she’ll go into labour whilst in flight. But they make it and she’s taken to the Military Hospital in Phaleron, a mile or so south of the city, by the sea, where she’s safely delivered of a daughter.
Which is where I come in.
A few days later, my father, A. T. Casdagli, or Cas as most people called him, came to collect Wendy, my mother, and me and took us back to Volos.
The following year, on 19 September 1949, I was christened Penelope Sherrie with water from the upturned bell of the British destroyer, HMS Euryalus, in the port of Volos. Legally, the ship was British ‘soil’ which meant my parents could get a British passport for me in case an emergency exit from this war-torn zone was necessary. That’s a photo of me, looking through a porthole.
So that’s who I am and how I got here.
In 2012, I decided my father’s prisoner of war diary should be published.
It’s a great story and I felt it’s what he’d have wanted. Now it’s almost time for PROUDER THAN EVER to be launched. Compiling it and getting it ready for publication has been full of adventures, some fantastic and some a bit too close to the edge for my taste. I was talking about it to Dave West of Studio 22,
whose doing the final typesetting of the book, and said,
“It’s been a ride!”
“And it’s not over yet!”
I laughed. He’s right. The next bit’s just beginning and I’m writing this hoping you’ll come with me.