Ghost Europe

For much of the 1940s, Europe was the cockpit of a world at war. Alongside it, though, lay another Europe, seldom discussed. It was the Europe which played no part in the war – the neutral lands.

From Stalingrad to the Atlantic Coast, from the fjords of Norway to the Peloponnese, millions were conquered, enslaved, and murdered by a death cult which took a twisted cross and skull as its emblems. Yet through all the bombing and the battles, the suffering and the slaughter, this other Europe lay beside it at peace.

Spain. Portugal. Switzerland. Ireland. Sweden, and a scattering of other principalities. All of these remained neutral throughout the war (while continuing to do business with one side or the other, or sometimes both) – a patchwork of brightly-lit countries where no bombs fell and life went on as before in the peaceful countryside and undamages cities.

It is strange to imagine how it felt during the war for the millions who lived in this ghost Europe. Imagine a rosy-cheeked Swedish family in 1942, travelling into the centre of Stockholm to see the Christmas lights being turned on with cheers and carol-singing, while a few hours to the south, columns of black smoke rose every day from the death camps in Poland.

Or think of a Portugese couple on their summer holiday in the midst of the war, relaxing by a poolside in Ray-Bans and swimming costumes with cocktails in hand, while just across the French border, Gestapo officers were rounding up Jewish people and torturing Resistance fighters.

Ships travelled regularly between Portugal and Ireland on the ‘Lisbon Run,’ prominently flagged as neutral. Our Portugese couple might easily have sailed to County Cork for a week’s fishing in some tranquil village, barely noticing a newspaper headline about the London blitz.

I wonder how these people felt. Was there a sense of moral indigestion?  Was there frankly a feeling of relief at being uninvolved in the war on the Nazis?  It’s a dilemma which has always fascinated me.

I imagine two sleepers side by side. One is tormented by nightmares. The other bathes in a luxurious, bucolic dreamscape. They both wake with a start,  staring at each other in incomprehension and horror.

Seven dreams


Are you haunted by certain dreams?

I am. Here are some dreams that I have had repeatedly, some of them since I was a small child . . .

I have killed someone. I am a murderer. How could I have forgotten for so many years? A few decades have gone by, studying, working, travelling, and all of this time it somehow slipped my mind. It happened in a room of a seaside boarding house. I forget why – an outburst of anger (yet I am never angry) and a body lay on the floor, blood seeping from a blow to the head. I locked the door. Days, weeks, months went by. Summers came and went. Flies did their work. The body lies there still, a skeleton in clothes with shreds of dried skin hanging here and there. No one has ever discovered it, but now I have remembered and the Police will find out. My life will be ruined. If only I hadn’t remembered.

I wake to see a bee buzzing around my bed. Being stung worries me, but I calm down as I see the bee is only going about its own business. It lands on my arm, then flies off to explore the curtain. We mean each other no harm.

The door bursts open. In the bright doorway stands a tall woman. A sort of a woman, for she is immensely tall and powerful, with her upoer parts like a bird. A tall nude body, cloaked in plumage, is topped by a sharp beak and a pair of sharper eyes. She reminds me of the woman in Max Ernst’s The Robing of the Bride. From her fierce expression, I know she wants me to kill the bee. I don’t want to harm the innocent little creature, but cannot disobey the terrifying bird-woman. Hating myself, I feel I have no choice. I kill the little bee.

I am in a hotel room in Switzerland. French windows open onto a balcony with a vew of a lake and the mountains beyond. On the balcony is a wrought-iron table. On the table is glass. An unseen hand pours water from a jug into the glass. I am the glass. The feeling of being filled with cool refreshing water, the clear air, the view of the lake and the mountains – all combine in an extraordinary sense of fulfilment and exultation.

I arrive home in London late on a dark night. The house is completely empty. All the furniture and everything else has gone.  As I go from room to room, I see that all the walls and every surface have been painted white. I look out of an uncurtained window onto the cold street beyond. There is no difference between inside and outside. From now on, it doesn’t matter where I am. It’s all the same to me.

I am flying over lakes and mountains, arms stretched back and the wind in my face. This feels wonderful and entirely natural. What really delights me is not the feeling of weightlessness as such, but rather the sensation of agency – of being totally in control of my own self, of where I go and what I do.

I have a strong sense of being incredibly small, like a tiny, near-invisible insect. This feeling is so intense, it’s like a sensation on my skin – a tingling of powerlessness and isolation from everything around me. In an instant, I flip to being immeasurably large and potent, spanning the universe. Stars are like dust around me. Then I flip back to feeling tiny again. It’s deeply disconcerting to be out of control of myself like this. I want to stay as the vast being, arms and legs stretching out across the galaxy.

On a winter’s night, I am driving through a wood. A woman is in the car beside me. The narrow road winds steadily up a mountainside. It begins to snow, prettily at first, then more heavily. The wipers work hard to clear it from the windscreen, replaced by fresh flakes as soon as it is swept aside. I have to guess where the road lies ahead between the trees. The car starts to skid now and then. I shift to a lower gear and lean forward to peer out,  gripping the steering wheel tight.

I can’t see my companion’s face as I stare ahead at the road. In the corner of my eye, I see her arm gathering a woollen coat around her body to keep warm. The headlamps are weak in the frenzy of falling snow which snatches up and disperses the light. Inside the car, the glow of the instrument panel is a small comfort. The woman turns to smile and squeeze my hand. I am glad she is with me. We just need to find somewhere safe before the car slides off the road and we are stranded.

The car’s heater stops working. Our breath turns to steam, and every few minutes we need to wipe condensation from the windscreen to see out. The higher we drive, the more the car skids and I worry about getting stuck in a snowdrift. At last we see a faint light ahead. Getting closer, we see more lights and then an old hotel appears. It has thick stone walls and overhanging eaves, like a Swiss chalet. Driving right to the door, we rush inside. Staff bring blankets to put around our shoulders. They bring bowls of hot soup which we drink cupped in our hands as we sit by a log fire.

We are shown to our room beneath the great wooden eaves of the hotel. The bed is high, the bedding thick and warm. Lying safe with arms around each other, we listen to the snowstorm howl around the sturdy building. No one knows we are here; this seems very important. When we wake, everything is quiet, muffled by the thick snowfall. We can get up as late as we like. The hotel is snowed in and we’ll be here for days. I feel intensely happy.