The making of Two Minutes to Midnight

  • March 16, 2021 11:22
  • Roger Hermiston

Two Minutes to Midnight: 1953 – The Year of Living Dangerously is an account of one of the most gripping, epoch-making twelve months in the Cold War. Author Roger Hermiston explains how he came to write about this year…

Ask someone for one important fact about 1953 and they might point to it being the year of the Coronation of our present Queen. If they are sports lovers, they could cite England regaining the Ashes in cricket, or the famous Stanley Matthews FA Cup final. Ask a scientist and they would probably tell you that it was the year of the discovery of DNA by Cambridge scientists Francis Crick and James Watson. Then of course, there was the first ascent of Everest by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.

My initial fascination with 1953 began with the political crisis at home over Winston Churchill’s stroke in the summer. The extraordinary cover-up of the Prime Minister’s illness – unthinkable in this era of press scrutiny and social media – has been written about before, and a half-decent television drama was made about it (starring Michael Gambon as Churchill). But I felt that a definitive account of how a small group of ministers, aides and civil servants kept the nation in the dark about the premier’s brush with death, and how they ran the country in his absence – along with that of his deputy, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, who was also seriously ill at the time – could make for compelling reading.

And hopefully it does – the crisis is covered in Chapter 7 of Two Minutes, entitled ‘The Emergency Government’. But as I discovered when starting my research, there was much, much more to say about these twelve months that had previously been labelled as one of the more monochrome years in the Cold War, not to be compared with the likes of 1948 (the Berlin Blockade), 1956 (Suez Canal and the invasion of Hungary), 1962 (the Cuban Missile Crisis) or 1983 (the Able Archer war game that nearly went disastrously wrong).

At the start of 1953 there was still no end in sight in the Korean War, which pitted America against China and the Soviet Union (on land and increasingly in the air) in a highly dangerous proxy conflict. In March, Joseph Stalin died, leaving the Western powers in a state of confusion about how to deal with the new men in the Kremlin.

The ‘Red Menace’, threatening America both abroad and at home, still loomed large in the minds of its citizens in 1953, kept there by the highly influential communist witchfinder-in-chief Joe McCarthy. The US government, with new Republican President Dwight Eisenhower backed by his hawkish Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, saw no reason to drop their guard because of Stalin’s departure.

However, Churchill, the man who had coined the term ‘Iron Curtain’, was desperately keen to embark on a new policy of ‘easement’ (détente) with Stalin’s successors. Eisenhower and Dulles were having none of it, and this tussle between the White House and Downing Street is a key theme in the book.

In 1953, Churchill sent a warship to the Falklands, the intelligence services of America and Britain plotted a successful coup in Iran, the United States was gradually being drawn into France’s disastrous war in Indo-China (soon to be Vietnam) and Britain elected not to get involved with moves towards European economic and political unification. All of these events, hatched in 1953, would have profound consequences in years to come – and still do so today.

But above all, it was the shadow of the mushroom cloud that loomed over this year. The United States had successfully tested her own H-bomb on the eve of 1953 – and Russia responded with the detonation of her own thermonuclear device in August. Throughout the year, America conducted A-bomb tests in the Nevada desert – one of them was broadcast live on television. In Korea, Eisenhower’s administration debated whether to drop nuclear bombs on the enemy on seven separate occasions between February and May.

All this led the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to move the hands of its ‘Doomsday Clock’ to two minutes to midnight, the closest it had yet calculated that the world was to nuclear Armageddon. 1953 certainly was the year of living dangerously, and I hope my book reflects what a tense, fascinating twelve months it was.

Interest piqued? Find out more about Roger's gripping book Two Minutes to Midnight and order your copy here.

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John Quin examines government health policy

  • March 01, 2021 09:29
  • John Quin

Ahead of the publication of Dr Quin, Medicine Man, John Quin turns his hand to a Biteback blog explaining the limitations of the UK's Covid-19 response...

 

How Twitter and three literary greats (a Vichy collaborator, an Italian Fascist and a Wehrmacht captain) ludicrously helped make sense of the British government’s woeful response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

 

A SPRING 2020 JOURNAL INFORMED BY L. F. CÉLINE, CURZIO MALAPARTE AND ERNST JÜNGER.

 

Friday 17 April 2020

Back to work for the first time in four years on Wednesday there. The front entrance to the hospital has, as ever, a couple of dossers fannying around: smokers, of course, embracing death. The old pastel-coloured Philip Dunn prints of the pier and the seafront still line the walls, a desperate gesture of levity. I overhear a conversation about some patient or relative being thrown out for ‘threatening to kill the ward sister’. I think: nothing’s changed.

I’m issued with a new security badge. Bat ears sticking out in the photograph because I’d just removed my mask. The canteen is closed, which is inevitable but sad because it has a great view of the sea. I say hello to the staff I know there and then the team at OP, where they take my temp on entering. Right. Let’s get to work. The computer and new IT is the biggest bugbear. The phone consults are fine, the patients touchingly accepting of the limitations, of my frank admission that I’ve not seen anyone in forty-seven months. Talking about erectile dysfunction over the blower is not ideal. ‘How’s your libido?’

Only one guy gives me grief – he asks three times if I can call back. He hasn’t had any of his investigations done. I’m not surprised to see that he’s in his early twenties. He’s moved to Bath, seems not to know the country is in lockdown, that there’s an emergency going on.

A colleague tells me that at least four of his old pals are currently on ventilators in various parts of the country. The BAME risk seems way too high. Maybe all BAME people over fifty should be offered immediate redeployment away from true frontline duties i.e. ITU/acute Covid streams.

‘Our survey shows: 22 per cent of physicians could not get the PPE they needed’ – Royal College of Physicians. Fuck sake. The days of austerity have crushed the NHS.

68 per cent of the British think that the government is handling the crisis well. Jonathan Coe writes: ‘That weird noise you just heard was my head exploding.’

‘We are resigned to getting it’: frontline NHS staff quoted in The Guardian. Cabinet still not meeting. Parliament not sitting. This country is now very, very sick.

Mary Agyapong, a nurse, dies of Covid. She was pregnant. The baby is reported as ‘doing well’. Imagine this poor kid aged twenty reading that in the future. Doing well. Another returnee – Peter Tun, aged sixty-two, a neurorehab consultant, dies. Over 100 docs dead in Italy.

The woman who discovered the first coronavirus – June Almeida – was born in 1930 and grew up in a tenement near Alexandra Park in Glasgow. She worked as a lab tech in the Royal. Left school with ‘little formal education’. The countries with women in charge: NZ, Germany, Iceland, Taiwan, Finland, Norway, Denmark – all doing a fine job. Those with sleazy geezers at the top – the UK, the US – not so good.

Helen Ward, prof of public health at Imperial, goes for it and accuses HMG of ignoring advice for eleven fateful days. Between 12 March and 23 March, tens if not hundreds of thousands were infected, including Boris Johnson himself. Ward is explicit: his stay on ITU ‘may have been avoided if the government had shifted to remote working on 12 March’.

Reading Jünger again, he’s still in Paris. Lunch at Prunier as he hears about the atrocities in the east: ‘You want to close your eyes to them.’

There are a lot of people who want to close their eyes right now. The atrocious cost of government health policy is not being stared at presently, but, as Jünger hints elsewhere, we will need to be forensic in our later examination of the facts. Study the pathogenesis.

Jünger says: ‘The totality of life does not dawn on us sequentially, but rather as a puzzle that reveals its meaning here and there.’ I’m trying to unpick the mystery of this trauma from the daily headlines and look for glimpses of truth in the comments.

Thursday night and at eight the pots and pans, the clapping, begin again. Kemptown sounds like an Alpine meadow, the tinkling of Swiss cowbells. Stupidly touching if naïve and the product of bad conscience in not a few.

 

Dr Quin, Medicine Man is out on 26th January. Pre-order your copy here!

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The Road to My Daughter

  • February 23, 2021 14:00
  • Elisabeth Spencer

To mark the publication of The Road to My Daughter, author Elisabeth Spencer shares her memories of the day that started her journey towards writing it...

 

When my child announced to me that she was transgender, I was totally unprepared in every way. I knew that Miles (as she then was) had suffered years of depression and isolation, but the idea that the young person I had only and ever known as my son might be suffering from such a total sense of gender dislocation had never crossed my mind.

Miles’ revelation emerged on the evening of a family crisis – Boxing Day evening, to be precise – when my then-husband, Baz, collapsed without warning and was rushed to hospital. The turmoil of his ensuing terminal diagnosis opened the emotional floodgates for Milly, and the truth finally came out.

At that time, I felt lost in a sea of ignorance and, as I discovered, of my own prejudice. When I saw how her burden had lifted and how happy she looked when she first found the courage to appear to me dressed as her true self, I knew I had a great deal to learn if I was to support my child.

I threw myself into trying to understand the strange new world I found myself in, reading everything I could lay my hands on. I delved into history, psychology and medical research, and in the process I discovered things about the body, gender and society that I had never before even considered.

Milly’s journey was a long and painful one. She was twenty-one when she first approached the GP about referral to the Gender Identity Clinic at Charing Cross Hospital in London and twenty-five when she was finally fully transitioned. That four-year process of transition was, in NHS terms, lightning fast. It was only possible because her desperation and determination led her to borrow significant amounts of money in order to pay for endocrinology, cosmetic treatments (such as hair removal and a tracheal shave to reduce the Adam’s apple) and ultimately full surgical transition in Thailand.

But for so many others the road is endless. Waiting lists are many years long, and few medical practitioners in the UK have any training in trans healthcare. There is a thriving trade in illegal hormones online, but even once a trans patient is on a healthcare pathway, mistreatment is endemic. Some sardonically call it ‘trans broken arm syndrome’: visit a doctor for a broken bone and you’re as likely to be sent away with a referral to a psychiatrist as a cast.

As my daughter attempted to navigate the system, I saw her plunge into despair. Eventually, her journey took her through the NHS to Harley Street, Belgium and Thailand before finally she could become the person she needed to be.

My journey was also profound. I had to face my own many shortcomings. I had much to learn, and I hope that I have grown. I now find it difficult to think of my daughter as anything other than the person she has become. The damaged, withdrawn boy of the childhood and teenage years has been replaced by a radiant and gifted young woman who is able fully to contribute to her place in the world. I am incredibly proud of her and humbled by her determination and sincerity.

I now know that no one, absolutely no one, would undertake the gruelling process of transitioning unless desperation drove them there. I have learnt that what matters is not what is bred in the bone but how a life is lived. Courage and compassion are our greatest gifts to ourselves and others as we strive to be who we are in this world. This was the road to my daughter.

 

Elisabeth Spencer's book The Road to My Daughter is now available to buy: take a look at it here.

 

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Job Vacancy: Editor/Assistant Editor (Biteback Publishing)

  • February 23, 2021 10:46
  • Biteback Publishing

Biteback Publishing are seeking an efficient, enthusiastic Editor or Assistant Editor to join a small, busy team publishing fast-paced politics, current affairs, autobiography/memoir, history, espionage and sport.

Reporting to the Editorial Director, the newest member of our team will be responsible for steering books through all stages of the production process, from original manuscript to print-ready files. With that in mind, we’re looking for:

– Solid copy-editing experience, ideally gained within a non-fiction book publisher

– Knowledge of the book production process

– Excellent proofreading and attention to detail

– Strong project management skills, with the ability to prioritise multiple tasks

– The ability to work under pressure and to deadlines

– Good communication skills, with experience of liaising with authors

– Familiarity with Adobe InDesign software

– A keen interest in politics and current affairs

The ideal candidate will be adept at swiftly editing non-fiction, with first-class knowledge of language and grammar, a sharp eye for detail, and the ability to work independently.

Please note that this is not an entry-level position; this would be a terrific second or third job for an experienced Assistant Editor looking to take the next step up or an established Editor looking to branch out in a new direction.

How to apply: Send a CV and covering letter, including details of current salary and notice period, to Olivia Beattie at olivia.beattie@bitebackpublishing.com

Location: London (though currently WFH)

Closing date: 12 March 2021

Biteback welcome applications from all backgrounds and communities, particularly those who are under-represented in the publishing industry. We’re happy to discuss any adjustments you need to ensure a level playing field during the recruitment process.

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Nuremberg: the foreword

  • February 17, 2021 11:53
  • Rebecca West

Airey Neave's book Nuremberg is back in print for the first time in decades! To mark the occasion we're publishing the original foreword from the 1978 edition, by Dame Rebecca West...

 

From Mr Airey Neave’s Nuremberg: A Personal Record of the Trial of the Major Nazi War Criminals in 1945–46, I learn that he was twenty-nine years old when I met him at that trial, and I will own that I then took him for a man of forty, and rather worn at that. But then his twenty-nine years had been rather more than most people’s twenty-nine years.

He had taken an Honours Law Degree at Oxford before going to war and collecting an MC and DSO and a wound and becoming inflamed with enthusiasm for the sport of escaping from German prisons. He successfully found his way out of Colditz to England and escaped from other places on several occasions.
He struck me then as dividing his attention between ideals of a sort that refused contentment, amusement at the world, and a puzzled interest in the persistent weakness of man. I noted as the years went by that in the interstices of a busy political career he managed to become a company director in the nuclear industry and chairman of the Parliamentary Select Committee of Science and Technology, and that he is now the opposition
spokesman on Northern Ireland. He has always seemed to me to have an admirably balanced attitude to life. It is, I think, against his principles to care much about danger but he would do all he could to spare the rest of us unnecessary risk. It became apparent at Nuremberg that a number of people who had had dealings with him during the war thought more highly of him than he did himself.

I welcome this book from him, because I gained the impression at Nuremberg that he was as conscious as anybody there of the true meaning of the trial. That trial was a sort of legalistic prayer that the Kingdom of Heaven should be with us; but the answer was, like all answers to prayers, coming in not as clearly as it might be. As for me, I know why the prayer was being directed towards Heaven. When I went to Nuremberg on two
occasions as correspondent of the Daily Telegraph and the New Yorker, I had had my fair share (no more but no less) of the tumbling about and senseless but nevertheless utterly necessary interruption of my life which the Second World War meant to the civilian. I had then gone out to Nuremberg and seen that the war had been worse for the Germans than it had been for me.

Spending two nights on my way down to Nuremberg, I walked out of the press hostel into a long street, as long, it seemed to me, as the road from Piccadilly Circus to Kensington High Street; and it was a trench of nothingness, the houses on each side of it had disappeared.

In another street, not so drastically punished, there were walls standing at the base of blasted buildings, and on these were stands with notices pinned all over them, inscribed with the names of families scattered by the Blitz, giving their whereabouts and begging for news of their kin; and people were standing still and reading these notices in animal eagerness, tilting their faces up and forwards as my Labrador used to stretch up his muzzle towards the tea table. At other places I looked down over barricades at hollow squares dug down into the depths of the earth, where a building had been, where its foundations were now being picked out by a frail and scrawny army of old women doing navvies’ work. They were a puddle of survivors, collected at the centre of a vast expanse of earth, stretching to the northern seas and the sunken mountains, where their menfolk were either stranded in defeat above the ground or buried beneath it.

In another part of the city I was to see a proof that because we had won the war we were not immune from mortal wounds. 

I was taken by a member of the Allied Control Commission, an old friend of mine, on a drive round the city, and at one point he got out to visit a German official in a ministry situated on a low rise of the land; and he told me to go to a balustrade and look over the skeletonised city. I had every right to be there, for it was in the British Sector and I had papers giving me a free run of the area, but I suddenly heard from behind me a strange
sound, a mixture of a yell and a shout and a scream, expressing fear and rage. A very young captain in British uniform was making a strained and sobbing demand as to what the hell I was doing there, staring at me as if I had a bomb in my hand; and towards him there was hurrying a sergeant, who caught my eye, rolled his and tapped his head with his forefinger, and cast a look at the young captain in which there was tender concern
but no respect at all. Respect or no respect, the war had been too much for one soldier. Our group looked like one of Goya’s ‘Disasters of the War’, and that was just where we were.

We were living through an agony: old and new. There was the fundamental horror that comes in when peace goes out. What, have we to kill strangers lest strangers kill us, and not even be sure it will work out that way round? Can God not be on our side? Is there not something locked away inside the process of life that will recognise that there is something special about us, and save us? These are questions that people flailed by the
inexhaustible artillery of history have always asked. But there is a novelty in our situation which makes it all worse. The soldiers of the past took war for granted, and had few opportunities to rise above the level in which they were born, to live past middle age and greatly better themselves. Their twentieth-century successors looked on war as an anachronism which should long since have been abolished, and felt that if they were slain in battle they had almost certainly been done out of a long and happy life. Also there was a political change in our minds. The soldiers of the past who had fought in wars were sent into battle by kings whom they respected as anointed by the Church, or as rebels against such kings as had acted against Christ. The armies of today are sent to war by governments whom they themselves make and depose; and the men who had been recently at risk had heard Hitler, obviously not sacred, baying like a sad hound on the radio.

To arrive at Nuremberg was like stepping on to the set of a science fiction film: the extreme of unreality, and at that extremely prosaic. The name of the town was familiar but nothing else. The picturesqueness which had impressed its image on the minds of the world was now a core of rubble, surrounded by grim suburbs threaded through with overcrowded trams.

There was an unpalatable lesson here: the gross wastefulness of aerial warfare. The destruction of the old town could have served no military purpose, but the new suburbs, which were intact, consisted of factories and offices and tenements, which it would have been useful for us to destroy, and the same lesson was taught by the fields all over Germany, pockmarked with bombsites. Other curious evidence was given by the atmosphere of the American and Allied community of soldiers and officials and the press correspondents who seemed at first sight to be in what looked like a euphoric mood caused by joy at being alive, but who proved to be about as little elated as any conquerors can have been since wars had become long. They were gay for moments but were permanently depressed. Every one of them longed to go home to his native country, though they were still in a state of privation. Their eagerness for repatriation wasfrantic. Those who were free to leave when the trial was over had cleared their desks daily for weeks in advance, and as soon as was decent after the prisoners left the dock they ran out of the courthouse like children going home for the holidays, for a holiday from war.

It is the virtue of the Nuremberg trial that it was conceived in hatred of war and was nurtured by those starved of peace. To realise how grateful we should be for this birth, consider the alternative. Towards the end of the war Churchill, Eden, Lord Simon and some members of the Foreign Office held that should the Allies be victorious they should deter Germany from future war-making by the summary execution of Nazi leaders to the number of fifty to 100. The Cabinet would never have anything to do with this foolishness, and no wonder. Every one of the Nazis thus dispatched would have become a martyr; and indeed as they were not to be tried, there would have been ample opportunity for miscarriages of justice. Moreover we would not have had the extraordinarily full and detailed view of the Hitler regime which was given us by the oral and documentary evidence which was brought forward and discussed by the prosecution and the defence during the Nuremberg trial.

Of course the trial was botched and imperfect. How could it be anything else? It took place within the same year as Germany’s defeat.

It had to deal with new crimes for which there was no provision in national law or international law, but which were obviously crimes, and no humbug,since they had left on the scene many corpses which would have preferred to be alive. But when it came to punishing these crimes there was a need for very complicated thinking. The Nazi leaders could not have murdered or imprisoned the innocent had they not been upheld by the hosts of followers who had called them to power and acted as their assassins and their jailers, and it was necessary that the population should be deterred from forming such dark loyalties ever again. The problem of how to do this had to be answered by recourse to the English and American concepts of conspiracy, which are not judged to be too convenient on their home grounds. The judges themselves were not of the same legal pattern, and therefore found it hard to agree; and as for the prisoners in the dock and German public opinion, the legal preconceptions made the court proceedings almost incomprehensible to them. In German courts, the accused person is not expected to give evidence on oath in his own defence; and is not obliged to plead guilty or not guilty.

There are a number of differences, and of these one was of great importance. In Germany accused persons are commonly granted bail, even for serious offences, and it seemed an act of spite that at Nuremberg prisoners who included generals and admirals and men of high political rank should not be living in a dignified form of house arrest, but should be spending days and nights in cells and eating prison food. This reaction was a source of surprise to the prosecution; and it is an index of the unforeseen difficulties which, almost overnight, had to be solved.

The difficulty of the task, and the spirit in which it was performed, are described by Mr Airey Neave as few other people could have done it. He was a much decorated soldier and his unique war service had given him an eyeball-to-eyeball view of Hitler’s military organisations; he was a trained lawyer; also he possessed in abundance that quality which the Romans called pietas. My recollection of him made me smile when some time ago I read a too simple-minded and fashion-determined work by Mr Bradley F. Smith named Reaching Judgment at Nuremberg and came on a passage relating to the letters of Colonel Bernays, one of the originators of the American trial plan:

There is a breathtaking moment in the summer of 1945 when Colonel Bernays walked through the streets of devastated Nuremberg as part of his job of appraising the suitability of the Palace of Justice for the trial. In a letter to his wife, he chatted about his work and then gave a long and sensitive description of the mass destruction in the city and the helpless confusion and suffering of the German civilians. One waits almost
breathlessly for Bernays to ask himself whether the Allies had not lost the right to sit in judgement because of the fact that they had used such patently inhumane methods of warfare. But the mood of the times created a moral tunnel vision that was too strong…

It might be Mr A. J. P. Taylor who was writing. Of course Colonel Bernays was not so stupid as Mr Bradley Smith supposes; and neither was Mr Neave. Nor were most of the other legal personages at Nuremberg. They wished not only that Germany might not do again what it had done, but that they need not do again what they had had to do in self-defence against the Germans.

If one has any imagination at all one sees that it really cannot have been easy for them; and it occurs to one also as a great pity that their pains were wasted when, before Vietnam, nobody troubled to remember Nuremberg.


Rebecca West
May 1978

Nuremberg

 

To read Airey Neave's book in full, why not take a look at Nuremberg on the Biteback website?

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