Book review: The Cryotron Files

Picture credit:

I found this book, published simultaneously in the US and the UK in 2018 (Icon Books Ltd., London, 2018), fascinating. It is cowritten by Iain Dey & Douglas Buck, and it is is subtitled: “The strange death of a pioneering Cold War computer scientist”. You could be forgiven for thinking, on the basis of the book’s main title, that it is fictional, possibly science fiction; but it isn’t: it is a narrative of what we have to accept (given the somewhat murky reputation of some of the organisations involved) as the truth, and the subject of the book is the father of one of the authors, Dudley Buck. Even if you feel you are reasonably well informed about how science & technology, especially that appertaining to computers, have developed over the last 80 years, from its hesitant beginning with Colossus at Bletchley Park, I think it is fairly unlikely that you would have heard of a cryotron. Even though (and without worrying about revealing any significant element of the narrative) this was ultimately a ‘blind alley’ for computers as we know them in common usage nowadays, it was fundamental to the development of computing in a wider sense than what we, as the vast majority of non-specialist users know of as computing, from our smartphones and laptops.

Those of you with any knowledge of etymology will have guessed that the stem of the word cryotron indicates cold, freezing or frost, and it is derived from the Greek kruos, icy cold, frost; this compound name was coined by Dudley Buck for his invention that he thought would revolutionise computing, and it is almost risible in its simplicity, and yet its operation is marvellously efficient, the biggest requirement being that it (or in common usage, they, in significant multiples) had to be contained within an environment as close to a temperature of absolute zero as possible. The device consisted of literally nothing more than two pieces of thin metal wire: a straight section, and another that was coiled tightly around it with a ‘tail’ on each side (you can see it, tiny though it is, in Buck’s right hand in the above photograph, comparing its size with a contemporary vacuum valve); so, an input and an output. Depending upon the presence or absence of an electric current, this switch could be considered closed or open: the absolute minimum required for a binary switch, which could produce a positive or negative result – yes, or no, which is the ridiculously simple premise that allows all computers to function (although quantum computers, now reaching a fairly sophisticated stage of development, will muddy the waters somewhat).

Have you ever heard of Dudley Buck? I certainly hadn’t, hitherto. It was clear from an early age that he was gifted in all-round terms, and after the tragic accident suffered by his mother when he was only twelve, he & his younger sister were sent from their home in San Francisco to live with his father’s mother in Santa Barbara. It was there that he was able to satisfy his curiosity for all things mechanical & electrical, using a spare garage on his grandmother’s property. The family was god-fearing, so Dudley was included in all the religiosity, but that didn’t preclude him from the occasional mischief, including producing a stink bomb from the lab equipment he had hauled to bible camp one year! He joined the local Eagle Scout troop, and made a friend with whom he attended evening classes in radio electronics; before long, they set up what is claimed to be one of the first mobile disc jockey businesses in California. This was late 1942, and “World War II was in full force, but it was all happening too far away to completely disrupt the flow of life in central California”; although Dudley’s self-built radio system did attract the unwelcome attention of the Federal Communications Commission. Despite having to surrender his equipment to be dismantled, the positive outcome was that, a few months later, “Dudley was plucked out of high school and sent on a fast-track training scheme for America’s best and brightest.”: a very sensible response!

After completing his college education in the V12 program, at Seattle, Washington, which was “a  fast-track officer-training scheme that would mix undergraduate study in a few chosen disciplines with the rigors [sic] of naval training”, Ensign Dudley Buck was posted to the navy’s communications headquarters in Washington, D.C., which is when his involvement with the various security services began, and very possibly set him on the path to his untimely, early death. Although the immediate circumstances that caused his death are known, the big question mark that hangs over it is whether the Russian security services could have somehow engineered it. Somewhat surprisingly, given the vehemence of the McCarthy purges which were concurrent, there was also a willingness to share scientific research, especially in the field of computers, with the Russians; however, it was expected that this would would be a reciprocal arrangement, which was not always the case, and the research that was shared was carefully selected, because computers were increasingly being used in the euphemistically named “defence” sector, for the purposes of both detecting & targeting missiles. Buck had been working with the newly-formed National Security Agency (NSA), and the already existing CIA, including a secret mission in Berlin, although this was overseen by the highly secret 7821 Composite Group: “… a covert CIA operation run by a man who would later be dubbed the Spy of the Century … Reinhard Gehlen”. Before this, though, he had gained entry in early July, 1950, to the prestigious MIT, although not without some strings being pulled on his behalf. It was there that he had the idea for the cryotron, and was able to start developing it.

The first reciprocal trips involving the Soviets, after a couple of false starts, took place in the summer of 1958, after which a bigger exchange was suggested by the Americans. The Soviets wanted to see “among others, the young assistant professor at MIT whom the Russians believed was building the guidance system for America’s intercontinental ballistic missile.” The Russians were aware that Dudley Buck was one of the expected headline speakers lined up for the Eastern Computer Conference that December, in Philadelphia; the conference went ahead, but without the exchange, “and Buck was indeed a star performer.” The following April, a group of seven Russian scientists travelled to the US for a series of meetings & demonstrations at various locations, one of which was MIT, where they were eager to meet Dudley Buck, but: “Ever patriotic, Buck clearly just didn’t want to show them his work. … The group left MIT that night full of questions, not least about the cryogenic computer that they had not been able to see.” Around this time, Buck had begun working on electron lithography, but to achieve this required some very volatile chemicals, and they were not easy to obtain; it wasn’t until May 18th that the parcel of chemicals arrived. With hindsight, it would be very easy to condemn Buck for the careless way he handled the chemicals, which appear to have caused the fatal illness that killed him within three days, but the strange thing is that his assistant, who was very close by during the handling, was entirely unaffected. The main concern is that the Russian visitors could have somehow engineered this, but it is difficult to see how. Perhaps it was just an bizarre & tragic coincidence; the fact remains, however, that the Russians were aware Buck was a leader in his field, and the potential military applications of his work, so there will always be a question mark over his death.

It is possible that if he had lived through this early period of development, Buck might have been able to overcome the limitations of the ultra-cold environment for his technology, but it had to be modified quite extensively to be used in any practical application; according to Snyder’s official history of NSA computing projects, the cryotron “‘proved not to scale to high speed operation as had been hoped.’ The detailed explanation of how the cryotron was used and what went wrong with it remains classified. It seems that it never was used as a missile guidance system, in spite of the time that was spent on the idea; the semiconductor took that crown.” Sadly, Buck’s family earned next to nothing from his work and, outside the confines of the well-informed, Buck’s name quickly became a footnote in history, but his work was fundamental to the development of computer technology, even though, as is usually the case in most highly developed countries since the second world war, all technology has to be a slave to the military. The details I have given here only scratch the surface of Buck’s story and his achievements, but I can highly recommend this book, and as I said at the beginning, it’s a fascinating read.

Book Review – Identity Crisis


This is Ben Elton’s latest novel, although he has a good number already under his belt, and he is also a very accomplished writer in other genres, including the very well known television productions  Blackadder, on which he was a co-writer, and the more recent, (in my humble opinion) very funny, Upstart Crow. This book was clearly written within the last couple of years, notwithstanding that events latterly have rendered it inaccurate (not that novels are under any obligation to be true to life, of course), because the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is female (but unnamed; and definitely not Thatcher!), and Brexit is part of the social & political scene but, very sensibly, Elton leaves the detail of the implementation of this schism somewhat vague.

It is tempting to reveal the whole plot, because it is sufficiently clever, but I will refrain (so no spoiler alerts necessary!); suffice to say that this is a Whodunnit, skilfully wrapped up in a contemporary morality tale about how our society (such as it is, no thanks to the aforementioned erstwhile first female PM) has become more self-obsessed, shallow and, for all our access to a wealth of information, more gullible; although that is, to some extent, forgivable, in view of how the media and, in particular, social media, are manipulated without compunction by agencies and their agents whose ultimate goals are, inevitably (depressingly so), filthy lucre and, of course, the associated power, whether real or only perceived. This manipulation is also not too difficult because nearly all of the print media channels are owned by only a few people.

The ostensible main theme of the narrative is not at all implausible; subsequent to (and, no doubt encouraged by) Brexit, there is a campaign (inventively called England Out) for England to leave the Union, whose prime movers are ‘rough diamonds’ Tommy Spoon (“who owned a much-loved chain of pub-restaurants called Spoons”) & Xavier Arron (a property developer), supported by the “three political heavyweights”, thinly-veiled characters called Bunter Jolly, Guppy Toad and Plantagenet Greased-Hogg: no prizes for guessing who at least two out of these three are! There is a distinct possibility of this further schism coming to pass, thanks to the machinations of a company called Communication Sandwich (and any similarity, excluding the name, to a company that manipulated the Brexit result, is entirely intentional; hence the obvious dissimilarity of the name, to avoid any possibility of litigation!), which uses algorithms developed by a young, attractive (natch) mathematics whizz-kid, who is one of the main characters in the plot. It becomes apparent during the course of the story that this company is playing both ends against the middle, to create social unrest, on behalf of another (for you, dear reader, undefined) person or agency, to influence and, thereby attain, the desired result.

Another associated thread in the story, whose significance might not be immediately obvious, is the apparent obsession of the nation with a television programme called Love Island (presumably there is no danger of litigation here?); I say apparent, because apart from being latterly an element in the plot, this is one of the main messages of the story, and very timely at that, that our perception of the mood of the nation is directly influenced by our diet of media – predominantly, these days, what are known, perhaps inaccurately, as social media – and this perception can be just plain wrong, because many of the often extreme opinions expressed, very often preceded (or so the book would have us believe) by what are known as hashtags (generally these are a link to a page dedicated to this issue) which are not the product of a real human being, but that of a computer algorithm, produced specifically to further an agenda, which might or might not be sinister and unacceptable to right-minded people, so although it might seem like ‘the whole country’ thinks this or that, this is an artificially-created perception.

There is another very dominant and, again, contemporaneous, thread running through the book: that of gender identity (hence the book’s title). The events in which this issue is unavoidable are many & varied, and although there is a definite element of validity in all of them, Ben Elton treats them with his trademark humour, so that, for all that I described this as a morality tale, the reader (this one, anyway) never feels the dead hand of moralising suppressing the humour; nevertheless, this issue gives us real food for thought: how far should we go, or feel obliged to go, to give people the opportunity to express their identity, and thereby expect it to be respected, however bizarre it might seem, especially to at least one character, a policeman called Matlock (and here, Ben Elton mischievously steals a name familiar to viewers of American crime dramas, albeit he was a criminal defence attorney, whose TV programmes ran from 1986 to 1995), someone who nowadays will be referred to as ‘old school’ – not in a derogatory way, generally, and at least it’s polite! You might gather that there several different threads woven together in this book, but I hope this review has given you an appetite for a novel that I enjoyed reading, and at 376 pages (the hardback edition: signed by the author!) it is just the right length.

Was Orwell guilty of bias?

It is perhaps too easy to assume that a writer such as George Orwell, if not actually saintly, was very well-balanced and even-minded, but the truth of the matter is that he was equally given to bias in his thinking and consequent written output as any other comparably well-educated person would be. I have just taken the opportunity to read his  The Road to Wigan Pier; I actually quote from it in Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles (note 16 to chapter 6; page 150), coming to it by a circuitous route, but I have neglected reading it in toto until now. Initially, it was the desire to read such a well-known book that impelled me, and I already had a general sense of what it embodied, but as I read, I realised that there was a significant relevance to my aforementioned biography of my grand uncle, Wilfred Risdon, because Orwell’s book was written in 1936, when he spent some time in the north west of England, experiencing life with ‘working class’ people (a term that seems strangely outmoded today, even though class distinctions are not yet entirely absent) especially miners.

Notwithstanding Wilfred Risdon’s experience as a miner, albeit in the south west of England, and then south Wales, and some fifteen years or thereabout previously, I was interested for two reasons: would Orwell mention the presence of Mosley’s party, the British Union of Fascists (BUF), in the ongoing debate about unemployment, and working people’s lives in general; and, would he acknowledge, in any terms, Wilfred Risdon’s work in Manchester only a year earlier, when he had a staff of 20 under him, and the BUF had driven “an energetic campaign in Lancashire to enlist cotton workers for Fascism …” and “opened about a score of propaganda centres in the cotton towns which, under Risdon’s direction, enrolled new members by the thousand and were so successful as seriously to worry the Labour Party.” (The Fascists in Britain, Colin Cross, Barrie & Rockliff, 1961; an online version can be accessed at Were miners so different from cotton workers, and did their lives never overlap?

Orwell’s book is in two clearly separate parts; the first details his travels and observations; the second is his polemic against the iniquities of contemporary life, particularly for working people, and how he considered that, notwithstanding his belief that only Socialism offered any hope of achieving any sort of equity, it was socialists themselves who were, in the main, hindering efforts to achieve this equity (he is also somewhat scathing of what he deems Utopian ideas): I was nearing the end of the book without seeing a specific reference to British Fascism, and beginning to wonder if he was going to ignore it completely. However, on page 197 (of 215 in the edition I read) it appears:

When I speak of Fascism in England, I am not necessarily thinking of Mosley and his pimpled followers. English Fascism, when it arrives, is likely to be of a sedate and subtle kind (presumably, at any rate at first, it won’t be called Fascism), and it is doubtful whether a Gilbert and Sullivan heavy dragoon of Mosley’s stamp would ever be much more than a joke to the majority of English people; though even Mosley will bear watching, for experience shows (vide the careers of Hitler, Napoleon III) that to a political climber it is sometimes an advantage not to be taken too seriously at the beginning of his career. But what I am thinking of at this moment is the Fascist attitude of mind, which beyond any doubt is gaining ground among people who ought to know better. Fascism as it appears in the intellectual is a sort of mirror-image — not actually of Socialism but of a plausible travesty of Socialism. It boils down to a determination to do the opposite of whatever the mythical Socialist does.

Although there is plenty in Orwell’s book that could be quoted & analysed, the paragraph above seems to be the crux of his attitude to what was going on all around him, especially ‘on the other side of the fence’, so to speak. Is there any need to denigrate Mosley’s followers as “pimpled”? However much distaste he might have had for what Mosley was doing (and it is questionable whether Orwell had taken the trouble to ascertain the totality of what Mosley was trying to do), justifiably, of course, with respect to the racism that Mosley condoned, this ad hominem denigration, albeit mild, was unworthy. He considers that English (note: not British) Fascism has not yet arrived, and yet Mosley’s party (one of several initially, but his very quickly became dominant) had been in existence for three and a half years when Orwell started writing his book: enough time to make a very significant impact, like it or not, on British politics.

The character assessment of Mosley is not entirely undeserved, but it surely should be a given that any personality strong enough to create & lead a new political movement, whichever side of the notional political divide he or she might be, is always going to display character traits that are ripe for lampooning? Towards the end of the paragraph he becomes somewhat wooly, as well as potentially arrogant: surely, “the Fascist attitude of mind” was already demonstrably well-established, and who were the “people who ought to know better”? It would have been helpful here, instead of inviting speculation (unless he means “the intellectual”: a sweeping generalisation), Orwell could have been specific. The final sentence does have the ring of truth about it, and I regret to have to say that this still appears to be the situation today: ever more so in our tawdry, polarised political arenas.

I have set out my views on Wilfred Risdon’s politics in his biography, so I see no need to reiterate them here in detail; but aside from his belief in Nationalism and the concomitant necessity for the State to be all-powerful, albeit (in his view) benign if all the members of the body corporate worked positively toward the same beneficent end; and aside from his distaste for Jews and their modus vivendi, as much a product of the times in which he lived as of his somewhat non-conformist Christian upbringing; he was a lifelong socialist & trade unionist, and his primary concern, which in a man of higher social status than he might be considered patrician, was his fellow man, in the generic sense, and especially all who struggled against the yoke of restricting social conditions, and consequently, he was prepared to put his trust in Mosley, for all his faults, to create the more egalitarian society he saw as being possible.

Orwell’s final thoughts return to the evident dichotomy, containing both the ever-present hobby-horse of class, and, notwithstanding another example of his own potential nationalism, another grudging admission that Fascism in Britain was a force to be reckoned with:

Yet I believe that there is some hope that when Socialism is a living issue, a thing that large numbers of Englishmen genuinely care about, the class-difficulty may solve itself more rapidly than now seems thinkable. In the next few years we shall either get that effective Socialist party that we need, or we shall not get it. If we do not get it, then Fascism is coming; probably a slimy Anglicised form of Fascism, with cultured policemen instead of Nazi gorillas and the lion and the unicorn instead of the swastika. But if we do get it there will be a struggle, conceivably a physical one, for our plutocracy will not sit quiet under a genuinely revolutionary government. And when the widely separate classes who, necessarily, would form any real Socialist party have fought side by side, they may feel differently about each other.

I have a feeling (and I apologise for not reading Homage to Catalonia to support this assertion) that Orwell might have had a different viewpoint on the last sentence of the above quote (most likely, decidedly negative) when he returned from Spain in a couple of years’ time: he had practical experience of the difficulty, and almost inevitable conflict, resulting when “the widely separate classes” come together in socialism and its extreme relative: communism. He could not know what lay in store for British Fascism with the coming of war, notwithstanding that it ran out of steam through a combination of circumstances. It is interesting to speculate whether Len Deighton used Orwell’s verbal image of the “cultured policemen” in his concept of a defeated Britain in his novel SS-GB; nevertheless, Wilfred Risdon saw, only three years after Orwell’s book was written, that Mosley’s chances of achieving the power by political means to effect the social change that Wilfred saw as essential were minimal, so he moved into an area of activism that was equally important to him: animal welfare.

Featured image credit: Sascha Ehrentraut.


A German Life: are we all Pomseline?


A documentary film was made in 2013, and shown recently on British television; it might have been shown here on a previous occasion, but this was the first time I saw it. It was made by film-makers Christian Krönes, Olaf S. Müller, Roland Schrotthofer, and Florian Weigensamer; it had the title Ein Deutsches Leben (A German Life), and it enabled the then 103 year old Brunhilde Pomsel (affectionately known by her friends & family as Pomseline) to tell her life story, as best as she could remember it, which was surprisingly well (without wishing to be in any way patronising). A book, entitled The Work I Did, and the reason for this post, was written by Thore D. Hansen, and published in an English version, with a translation by Shaun Whiteside, in 2018 (Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2018).

What makes this book and, of course, its source material, the subject of the first section, so interesting, is that it is the chronology of a woman whose most notable employment, in the context of 20th century history, was as a typist in the office of Joseph Goebbels who, for those who might not already know, was effectively second only to Hitler himself in the hierarchy of the Nazi machinery until the very end of the second world war. In itself, that would make for a fascinating read, for those of us with a thirst for knowledge of recent history, but she was by no means an ardent Nazi: not quite the reverse, but it is her apparent indifference at the time to events that were unfolding all around her, with the probable inevitable inference to be drawn that she was driven almost entirely by self-interest (and was also possibly not being entirely candid) that galvanised Thore Hansen into presenting a written record of the interviews, followed by an analysis of her recollections, and what relevance they have for the recent re-emergence (interpreted by many as a danger) of right-wing nationalist parties on a global scale, but more specifically in a European context.

But of course I’m guilty in the sense of being stupid. But it wasn’t what everybody wanted. They promised themselves a new revival after the loss of the First World War, and at first that actually happened. A re-blossoming of a humiliated people who had lost the war and not gained some of the rights that could have grown out of the Treaty.

Hansen points out how easily she could have informed herself about contemporary events, using information that was easily available to her, but “[t]he desire for personal recognition and her blind sense of duty towards her superior took precedence in the young secretary.” When the aforementioned documentary film was premiered, the current detachment from, and lack of interest in politics & the democratic process, on the part of large sections of people around the world, giving rise to ignorance, passivity and apathy, enabling those already radicalised to recruit those who are credulous & gullible enough to follow them, was emphasised; Paul Garbulski of the German Vice magazine was quoted as saying: “I have always tried to protect myself from others, and it is the ordinary person in me, filled with sufficient weary absurdity, who paves the way for betrayal and the violence of entire armies. Let us pay attention to the little bit of Pomsel within each of us.” (Gib acht vor der Nazi-Sekretärin in dir {Watch out for the Nazi secretary in you}; VICE Magazin, 17 august 2016, at:, visited 28 December 2016)

According to Hansen, “… currently many people are turning away from the democratic system because they do not question the mechanisms that lead to the breakdown of social and human solidarity — or perhaps because they don’t want to question them? In Pomsel’s life, or at least so it seems, little mattered apart from her own advancement.”

And now that was my fate. Who is in control of his fate in such agitated times? Very few people can say: I did this and this for that and that reason. It just happens to us!

What is happening in Europe & the United States is what is engaging Hansen on our behalf, and the parallels between the 1930s and the present day: “Are parts of the population, most of whom have not yet been radicalised by the new demagogues, in the end just as passive, ignorant or indifferent towards current developments as Pomsel described herself and those around her when she was aged twenty-two to thirty-four? Is youth today just as apolitical, and is the political disenchantment of the middle class the actual threat to democracy? Have the democratic elites failed by ignoring the long-term consequences and causes of an increasing political disenchantment? Are we returning, open-eyed, through our passive attitude and apathy, to the 1930s? And can we really draw conclusions for the present day from Pomsel’s biography — conclusions that will stir us into action? Anyone who does not wish to see totalitarian states emerging should take the experiences of the 1930s and Brunhilde Pomsel’s life story seriously.”

He goes on to give a specific example of this fear, as embodied in Turkey: “In our own times we are seeing a dictatorship emerging in Turkey. In the end it is people like Brunhilde Pomsel who have, at the behest of of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, brought the opposition, parliament and the media under the sole control of the president to ensure Erdogan’s power. We don’t know how much opportunism these police officers, functionaries and other henchmen displayed or had to display just to live (or survive) in Erdogan’s new system, but they are calling democracy into question. … The death penalty is due to be reintroduced. The Turkish parliament has been stripped of its power, and the powers of the president have been strengthened. These are all signs clearly reminiscent of the Nazi dictatorship, under which Brunhilde Pomsel began her career in the Reich Broadcasting Corporation after it was cleansed of Jews. What we are observing in Turkey is also happening elsewhere in the world, but we are talking about a country aspiring to membership of a community of democratic values — the European Union. … Democracy is the constant attempt to safeguard and protect the rights of the individual. The new right-wing populists, should they come to power, will deny individuals these rights again, and the old anti-fascist warning ‘Resist the beginnings’ is being uttered far too late.” I have only been able to scratch the surface here of this fascinating book, and there is plenty in it to stimulate thought about the current state of the world without, I hope, giving rise to pessimism: positive action, even in a small way, is possible, and can achieve tangible results.

This subject is of particular interest to me, given my own involvement, as a research subject, with British fascism in the 1930s, having discovered many years ago that my grand-uncle was a major player in the movement, before he detached himself, for reasons explained in his biography, Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles, to concentrate (very successfully, in my humble estimation) on animal welfare in general, and anti-vivisection specifically. It was always stressed, from the top, in the person of Oswald Mosley himself, down to the rank & file (with some notable exceptions, such as William Joyce, aka Lord Haw-Haw, it has to be said) that fascism in Britain, such as it was in its limited and, with the onset of war, failed manifestation, owed nothing to National Socialism in Germany; rather it was modelled on (but not cloned from) Mussolini’s Blackshirt movement in Italy, with its system of corporate government, rather than polarised party politicians who could be (and still can be, in many countries) easily bought. It is futile to speculate from the standpoint of the early twenty-first century whether Mosley could have been the mythical ‘benign dictator’, had he succeeded in his ambitions; my own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that such a thing is impossible, now, especially within the all-pervasive capitalist system, which surely only the most ardent (and blinkered) free-market proponents could resist admitting has failed miserably, but until the world sees sense and transfers all resources to common ownership, we will have to prop up democracy as best we can, to avoid global catastrophe. However, this does mean that we must all engage with politics, even if only to the minimum extent of voting, ideally for issues of importance, rather than being constrained by party straitjackets or, worse, submitting to apathy, expecting other people to decide their fate for them.

There is a fascinating, and rather poignant, postscript to the Brunhilde Pomsel story, which for reasons not elucidated in the book, concerns part of her life that wasn’t revealed during the filming: before the 1936 Olympic Games she met a half-Jewish printmaker & illustrator in Berlin. It is evident that Pomsel must have had more information at her command with regard to the plans of the German administration for the Jews in Germany than she had admitted to during the film, because as a result of their conversations, Gottfried Kirchbach (son of the painter Frank Kirchbach) moved to Amsterdam after the Games to escape persecution. Pomsel was pregnant, but Kirchbach felt he wasn’t ready or prepared to set up a family home in a foreign country and, sadly, Pomsel had to terminate the pregnancy because of the danger to her health from the lung disease she had been subject to for many years. Pomsel was able to visit Kirchbach a few times in Amsterdam, but this became too dangerous for her, and after the war started, she never saw her lover again. Kirchbach died in Amsterdam (no details given) in 1942; Brunhilde Pomsel never had any children after this, lived alone and died in Munich in the night of 27 January 2017, aged 106, and it is mentioned in the book that this is the day before International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Photo credit: still from A German Life, via The Times of Israel:

Hilda Kean

Hilda Kean

Wilfred Books is very pleased to be able to offer a short profile of an author, Hilda Kean (right), who was very helpful with sources and background information that was most useful in the writing of Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles, in the second of an occasional series, in which established authors explain how they undertook the process of writing & publishing their work.

I haven’t quite thought previously about what I have written, since it covers an odd subject including a medieval Carmelite friar, early education in the initial C20th – including assertive suffrage activists in schools, women’s political history, ways of approaching public history, and histories of animals.

The last two topics came about when working at Ruskin College, Oxford, for over twenty years. I was encouraged by the late Raphael Samuel, with whom I worked, to develop the first MA in Public History in the country, including running many open conferences. Raphael also helped me write my first historical essay on anti-vivisection, published in his History Workshop Journal, and I then went on to the Animal Rights book [see below], and many articles including Greyfriars Bobby, squirrels, animal cemeteries, Trim the cat, animal war memorials and unusual animal statues.

My latest book The Great Cat and Dog Massacre. The Real Story of World War II’s Unknown Tragedy came out last year, and there is a new paperback in the next few weeks. I try to write material on a range of topics on my website, where you can pick up various writing, and welcome comments from readers:


Hilda Kean’s book, Animal Rights, was published by Reaktion Books.

Anti-Vivisection and the Profession of Medicine in Britain, by Alan W.H.Bates

The latest post in Hilda Kean‘s blog, which is always informative, is a résumé of a recent book on a subject very significant to Wilfred Books, Anti-vivisection and the Profession of Medicine in Britain, by Alan W.H.Bates, in the animal ethics series published by Palgrave. She says:

The impact of anti vivisection upon people’s lives is covered far more interestingly than conventional approaches to the topic. There is good discussion of the Research Defence Society’s hostile approach to the thousands of people campaigning against dog petitions to parliament in the 1920s. There is also interesting discussion of the ambiguous approach of the London and District Anti-Vivisection Society in the 1930s and 40s. … The work is well written, accessible and engaging. Please consider purchasing the book of around two hundred pages to get to a wide range of ideas on this important topic.

On a personal note, there are several references in this book to Wilfred Risdon’s work for the London and Provincial Anti-Vivisection Society, and the National Anti-Vivisection Society (now Animal Defenders International), taken from Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles, which was published in 2013.

This book, of 217 pages, is available in hardcover at a cost of £20, including free shipping for individuals worldwide, from the publisher at this link; alternatively, because it is an open access book, it can be downloaded for free here. Please go to this page for further information and a chapter breakdown of the book.

So: wherefore Wilfred Books?

Wilfred Risdon at his office desk in 1937
Wilfred Risdon at his office desk in 1937

That is a very fair question; as always, I try to avoid lazy generalisations, but I think it must be a racing certainty (not said from personal betting experience, I hasten to add!) that at least a few of those people who ever come across the name of my publishing company must wonder on the origin of the name; so, dear reader (especially those aforementioned few): I will enlighten you.

Perhaps simply because of the uncommon nature of my family name (and without indulging in unnecessary self-analysis, although I knew it was a subject that had also intrigued my father), I became interested in family history about twenty-five years ago (note to self: it’s just a number) and, to cut the proverbial long story mercifully short: in the course of my research, and thanks to a dear, previously unknown, but now sadly departed relative in Weston super Mare, I was made aware of his uncle, although by that time he was, sadly, deceased.

Wilfred Risdon, as seen in the photograph above, was my grandfather Charles Henry’s youngest brother, born in 1896; hence, my grand uncle (no: not great uncle!). Len, his nephew, had known Wilfred (sometimes ‘Bill’, but NEVER Wilf!) quite well, and he was able to give a reasonably good synopsis of his life and career, the most ‘interesting’ (interpret that how you will, especially in view of forthcoming revelations) aspect of which was his involvement with a figure in twentieth century politics who has, subsequently, acquired almost the reputation of a pantomime villain (boo, hiss: oh yes he did!): Sir Oswald Mosley.

I was far enough removed from Mosley’s time of influence (again: debatable, I know) in politics, even though I had been aware of his death and a certain amount of the backstory, to be sufficiently intrigued by the little I knew to find out more. Luckily for me, even though he was undoubtedly not a ‘household name’ (a sobriquet that seems to have fallen out of use: nowadays, we all seem to be either ‘celebs’ or ‘plebs’), there was plenty of reference material to be found on Wilfred, and I was very lucky, from an expedient point of view, to make contact with people who had either known him personally (not enough though, unfortunately), or worked with him, or been very close to his legacy of work.

In his defence (not that I consider that he needs one, as the book details), parliamentary politics was not Wilfred’s only sphere of influence: he was also a fervent anti-vivisectionist, and I think it is fair to say that I have come to support his sentiments in this area since encountering him, albeit at some remove. When Wilfred broke with Mosley just before the start of world war two (which didn’t prevent him being interned without charge or trial under the notorious Defence Regulation 18B[1A] in May 1940), he started working for a London anti-vivisection organisation and, such was his professionalism and efficiency, by the end of 1956 he had engineered the amalgamation of the small organisation into the larger, but again London-based National Anti-Vivisection Society (NAVS), and he took over as Secretary at the beginning of 1957; he held that position until his death in 1967; ironically, by then, the organisation had moved into the heart of the medical establishment, which ‘relied’ on animal testing: Harley Street. The NAVS, now known as Animal Defenders International (ADI) has morphed into a global NGO.

Although I combined the research on Wilfred with more general research, over a period of a few years, it became obvious that his was a story worth telling; the crucial decision I had to make was how to go about it. Initially, I prevaricated because, although I knew that a biography was by far the best vehicle, I doubted my ability to complete the task satisfactorily and, in all honesty, I was more than a little bit daunted by the immensity of the task. Thankfully, a few very decent people persuaded me to do it, and all credit to them. Overall, including the writing of the book, which took about two years, I spent twelve years preparing it: an awful lot of research was required if I was going to do the job properly, which was the only result I could have countenanced.

I ended up with a book of 700 pages, including 7 appendices, a bibliography and index (the latter being essential, in my view); you might think, with some justification it has to be said, that that is a very long book for such an arguably insignificant figure in twentieth century affairs, but my view is: you don’t have to read everything if you don’t want to, but you can’t read what isn’t there, and you can always come back later to material you ignored initially. Also, I would have felt that I had given the buyer a poor deal if I had skimped purely for the sake of getting the book finished too quickly, simply for the sake of ‘getting it to market’.

In a way, although the writing of the book had been something of a grind, I proceeded methodically and regularly, which I actually quite enjoy, as did I the writing aspect, as I always have; it was actually the easy part, because it was something over which I had complete control; whereas, the publishing part was an unknown quantity — an unknown country, as it were. I had no stomach (or confidence, come to that) for the orthodox, conventional publishing process: find an agent and/or editor, with ensuing criticism and recommendations for revision (looking at it the worst possible way, of course); then either with their help or alone, find a publisher, if that was even going to be a practicable possibility. No, I thought: I’ll go it alone!

Would I do it again, knowing what I know now? Yes: of course. Would I use the services of a small publisher like I have set out to be, if such had been available to me at the time? Absolutely! I certainly don’t regret the time I have spent learning about the publishing process, but it is also very possibly true that I could have used that time, confident that I was leaving the publication of my magnum opus in the hands of someone who knew what he was doing, to develop other projects which might have brought me similar satisfaction, intrinsically, leaving aside the matter of the filthy lucre.

That being the case, I therefore invite any aspirant, or even demoralised existing authors (demoralised on account of receiving too many knock-backs) to consider letting me help them with the benefit of my experience, especially if the book they want to publish is not considered by the mainstream to be sufficiently ‘saleable’ (an entirely personal and also possibly judgmental assessment, based on the fickle fluctuations of ‘the market’); perhaps because the subject matter is potentially controversial, which is not unusual if politics is involved! I am prepared to look at potential publications at any stage of completion, so if you have a project that you would like me to have a look at, please go to my Wilfred Books publishing website, and look at the ‘About’ page, which has a link to a New Author Information page, and from there you can go to a questionnaire into which you can enter enough information to give me an idea of what sort of project you have in mind. The link is:

I hope the foregoing has been of some interest, and potentially of use as well, so, with that, I thank you for reading this, and I hope to meet you as a new author soon!

Patience is a virtue (allegedly)

Welcome to the new Wilfred Books blog. After much prevarication, I finally accepted that, as a publisher who is trying to establish some sort of presence in “the global market-place”, it was about time that the company had a blog, as well as a website , essential of course, because that’s where I sell the books, and the social media pages (Facebook  and Google+: I don’t do Twitter) so here I am, at last! It’s only fair to say that I also waited until I had more than one solitary book to sell, because that didn’t make me a publisher, but rather, an author trying to sell a book I’ve published (Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles)! I will return to this point later.

I thought, in my naïveté, that it would be the proverbial ‘five-minute job’ to make a new blog: wrong! Possibly it is simply the usual problem of unfamiliarity with a particular user interface for a specific application, but my frustration is partly the result of having created a blog on my personal website, which was the culmination of a very long & tortuous development process, mainly thanks to my relative inexperience as a coder; I now feel reasonably happy with it, even though I would also be the first to admit that it is by no means perfect (and, whilst I could very easily lists its shortcomings, I think I’d rather lyrically accentuate the positive!).

On the whole, I think I’m glad that I didn’t check out other blogs before I designed my own, because I think it would have influenced my conception of the appearance, whereas I approached the task as a design project, which meant that I could make it look exactly as I wanted it to, rather than having to conform to another application’s parameters. When it came to a blog for Wilfred Books however, I thought it would make more sense to use a templated blog, specifically to save time; one of the major drawbacks with my personal blog is that it isn’t responsive (adjusts to different screen sizes: it only works with screens no smaller than a landscape oriented tablet), whereas I knew it was imperative, given today’s peripatetic lifestyle, that the Wilfred Books site was responsive, which it is, even if the graphic design standard is basic!

In the end, I settled on this one; previously, I had what was probably a totally irrational aversion to WordPress, perhaps because of its ubiquity (I confess to being an unashamed nonconformist), but I am reliably informed that the platform is well known and generally liked for its efficacy. Hence, I can now compile & publish a new blog post in a recognisable and responsive form fairly quickly, which means, given that the delightfully-named ‘back-end’ processes (order processing, etc.) on the Wilfred Books site are working effectively, I can concentrate on developing the publishing aspect of the company.

That’s where you, dear reader, come in: do you have a book that you are desperate to publish, but don’t know how to go about it? My preference is non-fiction books, the favourite genres being auto/biography or interesting/unusual family history, but I will consider other genres if they have merit, of course (although I think romantic fiction might be at the bottom of the list!), so if you would like me to consider your magnum opus, leave your email address in a comment, and I will get back to you! Also, please feel free to comment on the style of the blog: I deliberately kept it quite plain, so let me know if you like it, or if you think it could do with ‘jazzing up’ a bit. Thanks!