Famous Refugees of Fact and Fiction

Most refugees never become famous at all, seen simply as part of a sea of faces. Very occasionally someone becomes famous for being a refugee. But there are times when someone becomes famous and people simply forget that they ever were a refugee.

I don’t suggest that being a refugee should perpetually define anyone. But it’s as well to remember that refugees aren’t only those people, they’re these people as well.

Take, for example Jesus, Mary & Joseph, who fled Roman-occupied Israel for Egypt when Jesus was only a tiny tot. The wise men from the East having inadvertently outed the baby as “born to be king of the Jews”, he was squarely in the sights of Herod the (so-called) Great – whose paranoia about takeovers was so strong that he had, at various times, had his mother-in-law, wife, and three sons whacked. Just to be on the safe side, Herod issued an order that all the little boys of a likely age in the region where Jesus was born should be exterminated… but Joseph had been warned and so Jesus escaped.

Moving forward with a leap to the twentieth century (hup!) we get to a fictional family (also Jewish) living in Russia. They also fall foul of a powerful ruler – in this case, Tsar Nicholas II – and are driven out amid a backdrop of state-sponsored pogroms. Sounds like a cheery subject for a stage musical, doesn’t it? Tevye and family, from Fiddler on the Roof.

Speaking of stage musicals, the Von Trapp family appear on both fictional and non-fictional lists, The Sound of Music being somewhat fictionalized. Driven from occupied Austria by the Nazis’ plans for Captain Baron Von Trapp, they took refuge in America, but their experiences undeniably left marks on the family. (Have a read about them; theirs is a fascinating story.)

Hopping backward in time slightly – and moving back into the purely fictional realm – we have Monsieur Hercule Poirot. It isn’t often brought up, but he initially comes to England as a refugee during World War I. His first appearance is in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, wherein he investigates the murder of the wealthy woman who has given a home to him and his compatriots. After the war, he stays on… and, of course, thrives.

Alas, the real refugees were not always so lucky. The Frank family fled Germany for the Netherlands when the Nazis came to power, but in due course the Netherlands too were invaded. They tried to escape again, to the USA, but doors closed in their faces: they were Germans, and therefore suspect. After all, the government reasoned, with family still in Nazi Germany, they might be able to be blackmailed into acting as spies. So the Franks remained in the Netherlands, until they were sent away to the concentration camps.

Others were more fortunate. Albert Einstein was already in the USA on academic business when Hitler came to power, and sensibly decided to stay where he was. For a refugee, he was a many-stated man: his citizenship listing on Wikipedia has seven listings (including, admittedly, “stateless” for five years) and he was offered more.

Conrad Veidt 1-M-2579Another who took refuge in the USA was Conrad Veidt. A popular film actor, he was not himself Jewish, but when compelled to state his race for the authorities, he put down “Jew” – because his new wife was Jewish. (Goebbels: He will never act in Germany again.) Veidt and his wife then fled to Britain, and subsequently, when it appeared Britain was in danger of invasion, to the US. He kept busy appearing in anti-Nazi propaganda films, but died suddenly (golfing heart-attack) in 1943.

Peasants, singers, scientist, actor, diarist, detective, Messiah… The next time you see a mention of refugees in the media, try to see past the sea of faces to a single face, and wonder who they are beyond “refugee” – and who they might yet live to be.

What’s On Your Desk?

Whether we like it or not, people make judgements about others based on appearances – including the appearance of their work space. Too messy and you’re condemned as disorganized and inefficient; but on the other hand, as Albert Einstein said, “If a cluttered desk signs a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” But then, one person’s neat is another’s messy.
Many of us are drawn to the ascetic simplicity of a desk like this:

Shaker student desk

but unless that book is about the only thing you use while sitting at that desk – or possibly the only thing you own – chances are it’s not going to stay that neat for long. Exquisite, but simply impractical for a ‘working’ desk, unless you have lots of time and an iron discipline when it comes to Putting Things Away.

Actually, one of the things I like best about my desk is that I don’t have to put everything away for meals – unlike when I used a corner of the dining table. I can just put down my pen and go off for lunch, then pick up the pen and carry on where I left off when I get back.

On the other hand, I’d like to think that my desk isn’t (and hopefully never will be) as bad as this one (I’m not even sure that there is a desk under all that):

Mattheus van Hellemont The Alchemist

Happily, my desk has quite a large surface area, so takes a lot before it looks cluttered. I have a bit over one square metre (that’s just over 11 square feet for the imperialists) and that’s before I pull out the two flat boards housed above the drawers and cupboard. (Anyone know what those are called?)

At any given time, my desk top will likely have the following sitting on it:

  • the current WIP exercise book (Tsifira vol. 4)
  • my favourite fountain pen (filled with purple ink)
  • notebook (tracking page count, ink refills etc)
  • chess board (mapping the WIP plot)
  • a picture of a young Amelia Earhart (how I imagine Tsifira looks)
  • notes (of various sorts, on assorted scraps of paper)
  • tea paraphernalia (teapot, strainer, cup & saucer)


  • my skeleton-case mechanical watch (or I’d lose track of time)
  • a wooden box with a perpetual calendar on the lid (ditto date)
  • a Royal Worcester porcelain treasure box (an engagement gift)
  • a teapot-shaped china box (a farewell gift from a former colleague at the DDJ) filled with mints
  • a box of matches (I’m not a smoker, I swear!)
  • the old candle lamp (I told you I wasn’t a smoker)
  • a glass vase (amber like the candle lampshade) with an arrangement of foliage (it’s autumn)
  • a tiny Hun from a Kinder Surprise egg (why not?)
  • a small painting of Pskovo-Pechersky Monastery (a 21st gift)

But not a computer. Not until the rewrite, at least.

What’s on your desk? What does your desk say about you? And dare I ask, what do you think my desk says about me?