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Leslie Wilson

Leslie Wilson’s most recent book is Last Train from Kummersdorf. She lives in Berkshire.

Diary: Nazi Germany civil service

Leslie Wilson, 25 November 1999

I can’t remember liking my German grandfather. ‘Oh,’ said my mother, ‘you adored him when you were a baby.’ That was in the incredible time when things were right, when my grandparents still lived together. But then my grandfather wanted to marry another woman and – my mother told us – had my poor, fragile, religiously-obsessed Omi locked up in a mental hospital. Now she lived like a ghost in our house. She didn’t speak English, hid from visitors and only went out to go to church: she’d walk three miles into Nottingham, to go to the Polish Mass in the cathedral because it reminded her of Silesia. Her eyes were faded and sad. Opa, a respected senior police officer in retirement, lived with his new wife in Wirtschaftswunder prosperity and we could never tell Omi we saw them, because she couldn’t bear to know that she was divorced.’‘

Mao’s Pleasure

Leslie Wilson, 5 October 1995

In 1949, when many of China’s citizens were running from the newly-victorious Communists, Dr Li Zhisui returned to his homeland. He had been making good money as a ship’s doctor with the Australian Oriental Company, and he could have stayed there or joined his wife in Hong Kong. But since Australia only admitted white people to citizenship, and in Hong Kong he could have become only the ‘disenfranchised subject of a foreign king’, he decided to take part in the reconstruction of his own country: this, he writes, was more important to him than making money. Besides, he wanted to become a neurosurgeon, and non-whites were barred from the top medical posts in both Australia and Hong Kong. Dr Li had a letter from Fu Lianzhang, deputy director of public health, which promised him a suitable job in China: five years later he became personal physician to Chairman Mao Zedong. He didn’t want the honour.

Salem’s Lot

Leslie Wilson, 23 March 1995

On 28 November 1988, Paul Ingram, a police officer, was arrested by colleagues in his office in Olympia, Washington State. His daughters, Ericka and Julie, had accused him of sexual molestation. Ingram made no attempt to deny the charges. He couldn’t remember doing anything, but he said: ‘My girls know me. They wouldn’t lie about something like this.’ He then started to build up the case against himself. Being a deeply religious man, he prayed feverishly for God’s guidance. He’d read in a magazine that there was a way of sending yourself into a trance. You had to imagine yourself entering a warm white fog. He tried this out, and the images came to him.

Diary: On Chinese Magic

Leslie Wilson, 12 May 1994

When, as a wide-eyed expatriate wife, I first arrived in Hong Kong, I heard this story over a restaurant table. The first time a Hong Kong building was sheathed in reflective glass, the buildings opposite began to suffer from leaks, electrical faults, and illness among their staff. This is because demons, who live in happy ignorance of their own hideousness, were seeing their own reflections in the walls, flying off in terror and bouncing into the building across the street. The geomancer, or feng shui master, was called in to solve the problem, and he recommended the management to sheathe the opposite building in mirror glass. The thought of all those demons ricocheting across the street was pretty unsettling, and I began to avoid walking between mirror buildings, something that was easier to do in the early Eighties than it is now.

Broom, broom

Leslie Wilson, 2 December 1993

The last person to be formally executed for witchcraft in England was Alice Molland, hanged in Exeter in 1682. But I have found tales of witch-lynchings in 19th-century England, even (in a little local history pamphlet) a murder in 1950s Oxfordshire that bore all the hallmarks of a witch-lynching. Swiss peasants used to calm storms by laying a scythe on the ground with the cutting edge uppermost to wound the storm-witch and Jung, writing in the late Fifties, described how he watched a ‘Strudel’, or local witchdoctor, taking the spell off a stable just beside the Gotthard international railway line. European witches were largely blamed for sudden and unexplained illness and death as well as for destroying male potency, for causing storms and ruining the crops, for spoiling the butter and killing livestock. The Witchdoctor (in English, the cunning man or woman) was brought in to counter the black magic and identify the witch responsible. The fear of witchcraft was considerable and so the prestige of the witchdoctor was high. They were a sort of alternative priesthood, and were often tolerated by the Church.

Diary: Talking Rubbish

Leslie Wilson, 19 August 1993

There is a school-trip atmosphere about this party of waste-disposal professionals off to the rubbish dump: the packets of sandwiches handed out beforehand; everyone piling onto the coach in the heat and waiting for hours, talking shop, talking rubbish. Mainly men, though there is a scattering of women. The occasion: an international symposium on waste disposal at Bosphorus University, Istanbul. This has got to be the Cinderella end of environmentalism, less cuddly than dolphins, lacking the apocalyptic quality of the hole in the ozone layer.

Letter

After the Bombs

21 August 2003

Christian Schütze’s article on German responses to the wartime bombing of their country (LRB, 21 August) reminded me of a story my German mother told me when I was a child about how, during a visit to an aunt in Berlin, she took refuge from the bombing in the cellar of a hotel. The hotel started to burn and the people in the cellar got thirsty with the heat, so they raided the wine cellar....
Letter

Salem’s Lot

23 March 1995

Joan Coleman (Letters, 20 April) is quite wrong to suggest that I might regard the subjects of witchcraft and black magic as boring mumbo-jumbo, as she apparently once did. I find them fascinating. Nor did I set out to prove that the extreme satanic cult she describes doesn’t exist: I went into the area with an open mind. I have no problem believing that people belong to dubious cults, and I...
Letter

What if?

20 August 1992

P.N. Furbank’s criticisms of Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety (LRB, 20 August) reminded me of Jane Austen’s Mr Collins flinching away from a novel he is offered and hiding behind a book of boring sermons instead. Because the meat of Furbank’s criticism is not that the book is a bad one – he spends a whole paragraph admitting that it is a very good one. What he...

Farewell Hong Kong

Penelope Fitzgerald, 24 February 1994

Samuel Pink is brought up in an English country rectory in the 1880s. He knows that the Pinks are not his real father and mother. He believes that he is the illegitimate son of Queen Victoria by...

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Under Witchwood

Adam Thorpe, 10 September 1992

A modern witch is a Witch. The upper case denotes a self-consciousness born of safer times: Witchcraft is now a minority faith to be taken seriously (at least in the States), and there is even a...

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