Book Review: Erebus, by Michael Palin

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Picture credit: oikofuge.com; showing Erebus & Terror

If you’ve never before read any of Michael Palin’s serious writing, I think this will be a very good place to start, despite it being one of his most recent books (Hutchinson, London, 2018; ISBN 9781847948120 [hardback]); if you have, however, I am very confident that you will enjoy reading it as much as I did. Michael is known for his Ripping Yarns series, albeit at some remove now, but this book is a true life ripping yarn, although with a bitter-sweet ending, and although the review is rather longer than others I have posted, I feel that this book deserves it, in view of the impressive detail contained therein, and the research that clearly must have been done in preparation for its writing.

It tells the story of the 1846 Franklin Expedition to discover the North-West Passage, but what first excited Michael’s interest in this expedition was the discovery in September 2014 of a sailing vessel at the bottom of the sea, although a relatively shallow depth, in the Canadian Arctic. This ship was HMS Erebus, hence the book’s name. Michael had encountered Erebus, figuratively speaking, in the course of his research into Joseph Hooker, about whose life he was going to deliver a talk to the Athenaeum Club in London, in 2013. Hooker had run the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew for much of the nineteenth century, and his policy of ‘botanical imperialism’ had become known to Michael whilst he was filming in Brasil, and which policy had effectively killed the Brasilian rubber industry. Before that though, in 1839, at the under age of twenty-two, he had been engaged as assistant surgeon & botanist on a four-year Royal Naval expedition to the Antarctic, and the ship that had survived eighteen months at the bottom of the world and returned safely was HMS Erebus.

In 2014, after a highly successful ten-night Monty Python reunion at the O2 Arena in London, he “saw [on the evening news] an item that stopped me in my tracks.”: a submerged vessel, believed to be HMS Erebus, had been found on a shallow part of the seabed (so close to the surface, in fact, that the tips of her masts would once have been visible above the waves) by a Canadian underwater archaeology team, and her hull was virtually intact, the contents preserved by the ice. So Michael set out to research this doomed ship, and he started at an institution of which he had for three years been President, the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), and which still had a pair of Hooker’s stockings, which Michael came to regard “as a kind of spiritual talisman”.

Erebus was launched on the 7th of June 1826, at Pembroke Dockyard, and she is known as a bomb ship because she was the penultimate vessel of a class that was designed to be strong enough to fling mortar shells high over coastal defences; however, history had by then overtaken this purpose, and the Royal Navy’s strength had already been considerably scaled back by the time of the launch of the 372 ton vessel. She was named Erebus to warn her adversaries that “here was a bringer of havoc, a fearsome conveyor of hell-fire”, because in classical mythology, Erebus, the son of Chaos, was generally referred to the “dark heart of the Underworld, a place associated with dislocation and destruction.” After being fitted out at Plymouth, she was transformed into a warship, but then she lay idle at Devonport for eighteen months waiting for a purpose. This was found when she set sail on 21 February 1828, under the command of Commander George Haye, RN, for a two-year patrol of the Mediterranean, which was relatively uneventful, although discipline on board was something of a problem. This changed in the second year when Commander Philip Broke took over: he instituted a regime of artillery exercises, but even those didn’t bring about a military career for Erebus, and at the end of June 1830, she was home again.

Her first real chance for glory came nine years later when, under the command of James Clark Ross, who already had something of an illustrious career as an explorer behind him, she set sail for the Southern Ocean to further our understanding of the earth’s magnetic field as, according to Palin, around that time “terrestrial magnetism was high on the agenda” of the newly formed British Association for the Advancement of Science. She was to be accompanied by HMS Terror, a similar type of ship to Erebus, but specifically one of the Vesuvius Class, built in 1813, with plenty of active service behind her. The voyage to Van Diemen’s Land, as it would continue to be known until 1855, when it acquired the modern name of Tasmania, took just under a year and, whilst Erebus was there, Ross’s “most urgent priority was to get an observatory up and running.” Their stay was relatively short though, and on Thursday November 12th 1840, Erebus left Hobart. The furthest south they got, at the end of January the following year, past 76°, was the Great Southern Barrier, a “great ice-wall”; an unbroken sheet of ice 300 feet thick and the same size as France; that ran east from the newly named Mount Erebus volcano “as far as the eye could discern”, and this effectively ruled out further progress towards the South Magnetic Pole, so the two ships headed back to Hobart, which they reached on 7th April 1841, as Ross put it: “unattended by casualty, calamity, or sickness of any kind”.

After a period of rest & recuperation (and no little socialising), the ships set off again in July 1841, via Sydney, northern New Zealand and Chatham Island, for the Antarctic. By February 23rd, after spells becalmed in pack ice, they reached the Great Southern Barrier (now known as the Ross Ice Shelf), and recorded their furthest position south, 78°9’30”, six miles further than their previous record, but it was obvious that there was to be no way through it, so regretfully, they headed for the Falkland Islands to refit & resupply. On the way, both ships were nearly lost because, in avoiding a giant iceberg, their course resulted in them colliding, and after Terror had found a narrow gap between ’bergs, it was only the rapid & unorthodox action of Captain Ross that avoided Erebus being reduced to matchwood, with the loss of all hands. Their safe arrival at the Falklands was overshadowed by the loss of four men during the recent expedition. They stayed there until September, when they set off “for a short expedition to undertake a survey of magnetic activity around Cape Horn, a round trip of about 2,000 kilometers, and they took 800 young beech trees “back to the treeless Falklands.” By the 17th of December 1842, they were ready to set off again, but this time there was nowhere near as much enthusiasm for the trip, one notable exception being Captain Ross. This time, they went nowhere near the Barrier, and by early March, when the winter ice was closing around them Ross accepted defeat and gave the order for both ships to set sail for the Cape of Good Hope.

They reached those safe waters the following April. According to Palin, “Officially … the Antarctic expedition was a success. Unofficially it extracted a traumatic toll.” Ross resolved never to go to the Antarctic again, and Hooker revealed in a letter to his father that none of the men would follow Ross there either. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to go straight home: they had to go via Ascension Island and Rio de Janeiro, “for magnetic purposes”. By the beginning of September 1843, however, they were in sight of “the shores of Old England”. Back on dry land, Ross resolved never to go to sea again: “The long voyage had exhausted him.” He probably wouldn’t have been in the least perturbed that “For the next sixty years the antarctic remained virtually forgotten.” However, paradoxically, according to Palin,  Erebus and Terror’s success had renewed interest in the Arctic, specifically: conquest of the Northwest Passage, if for no other reason than to prevent the Russians from getting there first. The biggest advantage that could be pressed to achieve this was “that two ice-tested ships were ready and waiting in the Thames estuary.” The go-ahead was given, and preparations for the voyage, including some strengthening of hull & decks, and, controversially, the fitting of 2 second-hand 25-horsepower locomotive engines (much smaller than the marine steam engines of the time, were completed in very short order; to make the best use of the northern summer of course; so that the ships left England on the 19 May 1845, under the command of the surprisingly old (59) Sir John Franklin, who had latterly been somewhat in the doldrums as Governor General of Tasmania: he had, in fact, been summarily dismissed.

Before Greenland was reached, a crow’s nest, invented by William Scoresby less than half a century previously, was installed on Erebus, to keep a lookout for ice; Terror, which followed Erebus, was not so equipped. It seems odd that this wasn’t considered for the Antarctic expeditions. By late July, both ships were seen, surrounded by ice in upper Baffin Bay, by two whaling ships, Prince of Wales and Enterprise; the sighting by Captain Dannett of the former, on the 27th of July, is generally assumed to be the last-recorded sighting of the expedition, other than by Inuit; although there was an unconfirmed sighting of the tips of their masts on the horizon, by Captain Martin of Enterprise, as late as the 29 or 31 of July. When 1847 arrived with no word from the expedition, at least two proposals for fact-finding or possible rescue missions to the Arctic were rejected by the Admiralty and the Royal Society: it was both too soon and potentially too dangerous. In less than a year, this attitude was reversed, but the first voyage, to the Bering strait, found nothing; the second rescue attempt, down the Mackenzie River to the coast & islands, also found no trace of Franklin & his men; finally, James Ross, having acceded to the relentless demands from Franklin’s wife, Jane, set off in the summer of 1848 in Enterprise (although whether this is the same one mentioned earlier is not specified), accompanied by Investigator. They made very little progress, because the ice was so thick and the weather so cold, and they had to winter at Somerset Island, where Ross had surveyed in 1932. After an aborted man-hauled sledge search, covering 500 miles in 39 days, Ross decided to return home. Needless to say, Jane Franklin was surprised & disappointed.

Over the next decade, 36 separate expeditions were mounted to the area. In August 1850, the first tangible evidence was found: “fragments of naval stores, portions of ragged clothing, preserved meat tins”, and an empty cairn; soon after, the graves of two seamen from Erebus and one from Terror were found. Other evidence started turning up in diverse locations, and further expeditions only succeeded in proving where Franklin had not gone, rather than the opposite. The first claimed land crossing of the Passage was in 1853, but still no sign of Franklin. In January 1854, notwithstanding the opposition of Lady Franklin, the Admiralty decided to draw a line under the situation, and consider the men of the two ships lost. Within a few months, however, a Hudson’s Bay employee, John Rae, had bought from Arctic Inuits various items that were soon identified as belonging to members of the Franklin expedition, but worse was to come: “‘From the mutilated state of many of the bodies, and the contents of the kettles [cooking vessels].’ Rae reported the Inuit telling him, ‘it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last dread alternative as a means of sustaining life.’” This grisly but pragmatic solution was totally unacceptable to polite Victorian society, and was dismissed out of hand by no less a champion of Jane Franklin than Charles Dickens. He helped to raise funds, speaking at the RGS, and £3,000 was enough to organise a 177-ton 3-masted, steam-driven yacht, Fox, to engage in a search, leaving in July 1857.

After initially getting caught in ice in Baffin Bay and having to overwinter there, the ship was able to move to a base at the eastern end of Bellot Strait and a sledge-bound reconnaissance expedition was mounted. On the way, Inuits they met told of 2 ships that had come to grief, one sinking, which spurred the searchers on. Confirmation of Franklin’s death was found in a written record in a cairn, and the second-in-command of the rescue mission, Lieutenant William Hobson, wrote it all up in a report dated 1 August 1859, but it was never published (finally appearing in Arctic magazine in April 2014), so the news didn’t come out until 23 September, when Fox arrived back in England. It emerged that “Crozier had led his doomed men to the last link in the chain of marine connections that made up the Northwest Passage.” Statues were erected, and this appeared on the citation that accompanied the award of the Founder’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society to Jane Franklin, the first woman to be so honoured by the Society; although curiously, not her husband. With regard to the predominant cause of the death of the Franklin Expedition members, there doesn’t appear to be consensus; exhaustion and hypothermia are obvious, and lead poisoning from badly sealed food tins is a strong contender, but also is tuberculosis, which was the probable cause of death in at least three cases.

This is an absolutely fascinating account and meticulously researched; I have deliberately (of necessity!) skimmed for this review, but Palin mixes the comprehensive historical detail with his own experience of travelling to many of the locations mentioned. It is a mixture of pathos and enthusiasm, as much for the enterprise of the British as much as anything else, but this is also tempered with Palin’s own observations on how this enterprise can be contaminated by greed and the arrogance of  imperialism; I will leave the last word to Palin:

“So far as nature was concerned, Ross was like McCormick and so many other of his contemporaries, inquisitive but unsentimental. At that time the world’s population was less than one billion and resources were abundant. Today, with the population heading towards eight billion, the destruction of our habitat is seen as a threat rather than an obligation. For Ross, the rich seas and forests of Tasmania were not there to be conserved, they were there to be exploited. To make the world a better place, one had to make it more productive. If there were fish, then they should be caught; if there were forests, they should be cut down. He couldn’t see the wood for the price of timber. Woodland should become farmland, and quiet coves with good harbours should become productive ports.

Of the original inhabitants of the island, neither Ross nor anybody else had much to say. Almost all had now been killed or removed to Flinders Island. Hooker has a particularly poignant entry in his journal. ‘Of the numbers that once inhabited this island, only three remain, all males, and they consist of an old, a middle aged man, and a child. They are very savage, but seldom seen.’

Ross was a successful, strong-willed and strong-minded individual who saw the world as being at the service of man. And from there it was a small step to seeing the British as those best suited to be the world’s caretaker.”

Book Review – Identity Crisis

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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.

Book Review – Breaking and Entering

Contrary to what you might think, this book is not a catalogue of actual burglary and/or housebreaking (other than a few minor instances in the early chapters), but the subtitle tells us specifically what it deals with: The extraordinary story of a Hacker called ‘Alien’. It is written by Jeremy N. Smith, and published by Scribe Publications, London, 2019; ISBN 9781911617006 (UK edition). I am interested in matters computer, and enjoy tinkering with code, becoming proficient enough to hand-code (a matter of some pride) a personal website (jonrisdon.co.uk) and a business website (wilfredbooks.co.uk), from which I sell the biography of my grand uncle, Wilfred Risdon 1896-1967, Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles, and also offer help to aspiring authors. With the best will in the world though, I am no genius when it comes to coding & computers: at best (and, ideally, free of self-deception) I am a dilettante.

I had read, maybe last year (how time flies!) an account of the hacking collective (although even that loose terminology is disputed by its participants) called Anonymous and, although it was acceptably interesting, it was somewhat confusing, given the myriad of groups & splinter-groups under that umbrella name, all, seemingly, with their own variant of a code of ethics (although some would even question dignifying them with so honourable a description); so it was easy to lose focus, and in the end, I was quite glad to finish it.

Jeremy Smith’s book, however, was not what I expected, and had me gripped from the word ‘Go’. It is effectively a part-biography (given that she is still relatively young) of a woman called Elizabeth Tessman, from New Jersey, USA, who adopted the pseudonym Alien when she became a freshman (freshperson wouldn’t sound quite right, would it?) at the prestigious MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This action is not as deceptive or devious as it sounds: simply that she needed a username for the college computer system, and eschewing something as mundane as her initial & family name, she tried ‘ET’. The film was already sixteen years old (this was August 1998) but still one of her favourites; unfortunately, 2 letters wasn’t sufficient; so, she thought back to the oversized essay with which she had clinched her acceptance, which concerned extraterrestials and how beneficent they might be; she tried ‘alien’, which was accepted, so, from there on, Alien she became.

Jeremy Smith takes the reader at a cracking pace through her life story from university to becoming an established, and still growing, independent consulting company in the field of cyber-security; a ‘white hat’ hacker, as they are known. Along the way, she has to face, and occasionally fight, almost unbelievably, at the end of the twentieth century, the prejudice & discrimination displayed by male colleagues, in a world where male ‘geeks’ tend to dominate the field of computers. It is also a salutary lesson, however depressing it might seem, given that it explicitly details an erosion of trust in human relations, that however well protected we might think the computer systems (and that encompasses all devices with processors and an internet connection) with which we interact might be, they are all, without exception, susceptible to attack by individuals and, increasingly, organisations, with malignant intent.

However (and I say this as the father of two wonderful daughters who never cease to amaze me with their skills & determination), this book is a heart-warming story of how Alien succeeded against the odds, which included working insane hours to prove that she was more than capable of holding her own and, latterly, with a burgeoning young family, running her own company in what was a highly competitive field and still, predominantly, a male-dominated world, although that has changed as the twenty-first century has progressed and more opportunities in scientific & technical specialities have opened up for women; when the pay gap is eliminated, these ladies might be able to consider themselves equal. This is an excellent read, and I hope that if you also read it, you enjoy it as much as I did.

A German Life: are we all Pomseline?

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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: http://www.vice.com/de/read/sind-wir-nicht-alle-ein-bisschen-pomsel, 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: https://www.timesofisrael.com/shot-in-black-and-white-a-german-life-paints-wwii-in-chilling-shades-of-gray/

Ahoy there, Faye Sewell!

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Faye Sewell

The next in the occasional series of posts offered to guest authors by Wilfred Books will be presented in the style of an interview, in which she explains how she became an author, with Faye Sewell (right), who is already an established actor, with a wide & varied roster of screen rôles under her belt, but couldn’t resist the urge to write! She has now published three classic ‘Pirate’ novels, which will be detailed below.

Is writing currently your main activity, on a regular basis?

Writing is my secondary occupation, Acting is my primary one. I feel like they’re very complimentary to one another, I have always enjoyed getting inside characters’ heads and building them, whether from clues in a script or a person who walks into my imagination and demands to be written down.

When did you first start writing seriously?

I’ve always written from as far back as I can remember, but all my work would end up being first drafts and incomplete – something I was excited about briefly but had no follow through to complete. Then a few years back I started a book and finished it, realized I just hadn’t been writing about anything that interested me enough in the past – and became so obsessed with my new book that finishing it and going on to complete the trilogy was something that I absolutely had to do.

Which route into publishing did you follow?

I didn’t approach publishers directly as a lot of them seemed closed to unsolicited submissions and while I did write to a few agents, I got tired with stock responses and decided to take matters into my own hands. I was very keen to just get my story out there and having spoken to other writers and hearing how long it could take to find an an agent and from that point on, yet more time to find a publisher, I felt that self-publishing was the way to go for me.

Would you have been open to an offer from a publisher, if one had been forthcoming?

If I had been approached by a publisher and offered a deal, it would have definitely been something that I would have considered – but very dependent on the circumstances. I am very protective of my characters and maintaining their integrity and what I set out to do with my trilogy was and is very important to me. I would of course have been open to feedback, but no major changes and nothing that would compromise creative control to a large extent.

How do you see the future for your writing, from now on?

I’m very lucky in that I do have a lot of time to write and when I’m not acting I can write full-time. I love variety and I think it makes me a better writer, having breaks to work on acting jobs and then returning to what I’m working on with a fresh perspective.

Your Black Feather Trilogy looks very exciting, and deserves to be very successful. The first image below is a link to the Kindle Store on Amazon.co.uk. Thank you very much, Faye, and the best of luck with your writing!

The KestrelEbbing Tides

The third book in this trilogy, Cresting Waves, can be seen in the banner image at the top of this post.

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: http://hildakean.com.

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

Chris Dolley

Wilfred Books is very pleased to showcase the prolific and highly successful author, Chris Dolley, in the first of an occasional series of blogs from established authors, at whatever stage in their writing careers. Chris’s background is in technology, but this post is something of a privileged exclusive, because it is, in visual terms, an ‘out-take’ from one of his books, which details a rather traumatic episode in his life; so read on and share vicariously in his adventure!

1916734_326706036129_648735_nChris Dolley is a New York Times bestselling author. French Fried is about his move to France – which culminated in his identity being stolen and life savings disappearing. Abandoned by the police forces of four countries who all insisted the crime belonged in someone else’s jurisdiction, he had to solve the case himself. Which he did, but unlike fictional detectives, he had an 80 year-old mother-in-law and an excitable puppy who insisted they came along if he was going anywhere interesting – like a stakeout. Here’s Chris:

When writing a book you often have difficult decisions to make when it comes to the final edits. So it was when I wrote French Fried: One man’s move to France with too many animals and an identity thief. Reading though the book, I felt that it took too long to get to the identity theft part of the book and decided to cut one of the chapters – which was a shame as it contained some of my favourite scenes. Here’s one of them: The Optician, the Receptionist, and the Skirting Board.

In the month before we moved to France we decided to have a thorough check up – opticians, dentists, doctors, the lot. It seemed a sensible course of action when exchanging a largely free health service for something entirely unknown.

Unfortunately we caught the optician on a bad day.

I thought the receptionist’s behaviour somewhat strange. Asking the customer if they really wanted to go through with their appointment is not normal front desk procedure.

“He is a locum,” the receptionist pressed. “Not the usual optician. You can re-book if you want.”

She did everything but beg us to run for our lives. But we were not to be swayed, our eyes needed checking and God knows when we’d be able to master enough of the French alphabet to risk an examination in France.

Shelagh went in first – half expecting to see a Transylvanian hunchback – but instead was met by a perfectly normal optician in his mid-thirties. A perception that persisted for several minutes – that is until she let slip the reason for her appointment – our imminent emigration to France.

“France!” he spluttered. “Don’t talk to me about France!”

There then followed a potted life history of an optician’s sorry slip down life’s ladder. And very sorry it was. He’d had his own practice – a thriving one – and then exchanged it all for an even larger one in France. He’d had several shops, a new life, boundless possibilities.

And then lost it all.

Cheated by banks and business partners and I think half of the French population during the final stages, he’d sunk into a morass of debt and had to sell up and come home. Not that there’d been much left to sell. He’d even lost money on his house. His purchasers and the notaire added to the long list of French nationals who’d cheated, connived and generally done him wrong.

This was not a happy optician.

And now he was home again trying to rebuild a shattered life. Filling in for opticians who could afford to go off on holiday – probably to France.

Shelagh thought it best to steer the conversation as far away from France as possible at that point. Having your eyes probed by a man muttering to himself about Gallic conspiracies is not generally seen as a good thing.

Neither it appeared was asking for a sight test for glasses while wearing contact lenses.

“Don’t you want a test for contact lenses?” he asked.

“Well, I did. But the receptionist said you only did glasses.”

“She what!”

And then he was off again. Half of Devon added to the Gallic conspiracy.

“I can do contact lenses!” he exclaimed in a mixture of disbelief and rising indignation. Was the whole world against him? “I do contacts! I do glasses. I do the lot! I’m an optician!”

And then a lot of muttering. Luckily he hadn’t been in France long enough to pick up the spitting and ritual grinding of the spittle into the carpet.

But he wasn’t far off.

“Why did she say that?” he continued to no-one in particular, walking off into the far corner of the consulting room, pushing his hands through his hair and looking one step away from curling up into a ball against the skirting board.

Never a good sign for an optician.

It was about at this point that the phone rang in reception. I was sitting nearby and the caller had a loud voice, so I heard most of what followed.

“Is he all right?” a woman’s voice began worriedly.

“I think so. So far, anyway,” came the reply in hushed conspiratorial tones and nervous looks towards the consulting room door.

“He hasn’t…” The voice hung in an open question mark, unable to frame the terrible conclusion to the question. What hadn’t he? I inclined an ear closer to the conversation, shuffled to the edge of the chair. What was happening behind that door?

“No,” said the receptionist, shaking her head. “Well, not yet anyway.”

We both cast anxious looks towards the door.

“I’m sure he’ll be all right,” continued the receptionist in a voice that underlined the fact that she was convinced of the exact opposite.

Back inside the consulting room a depressed locum fought his way back from the siren call of the skirting board and cast a veneer of professionalism over his sinking spirits. He would continue with the sight test. He was a professional. Whatever anyone else said.

When it was my turn, I walked in, settled down in the chair, smiled a lot and cast beams of well being and general bonhomie in all directions. I was taking no chances.

“And what can I do for you?” he started brightly.

“Well, I’m about to move to France…”

French Fried is available from Amazon at the following link:
https://www.amazon.co.uk/French-Fried-France-animals-identity-ebook/dp/B003UBTVSI/.