Posts belonging to Category culture and society

Bristolcon, and the Universal Monster Template Theory Reprised

This weekend saw this year’s Bristolcon, and it was another excellent event, thanks to the hardworking team behind what’s now established as an outstanding regional convention in the UK calendar.

I heartily recommend it; both for long-time fans and also for those more recently come to SF&F who’re wondering about investigating the convention circuit. It’ll offer the former an interesting and entertaining programme that’s very much not the usual suspects and subjects, as you’ll see from this year’s website. At the same time, it’s a compact, friendly and very accessible event that’s not going to be overwhelming for a first-timer in the way that, potentially, a big convention like an Eastercon can be.

Next year’s event is on October 29th, with Guests of Honour Fangorn (artist), Ken McLeod and Sarah Pinborough (authors). Mark your diaries and make your plans accordingly.

Anyway, back to this year’s convention, I thoroughly enjoyed contributing to discussions on censorship and to a wide-ranging exploration of alternate history within speculative fiction. It was also great to catch up with friends as well as to meet new, interesting and enthusiastic readers and writers – not least to remind me that my life really isn’t going to be all about EU digital VAT for ever and a day. It was also fabulous to find so many people sharing my enthusiasm for the new Southern Fire ebook cover.

The last panel I sat in on, in the audience, was ‘Here be dragons’, discussing mythological creatures in fantasy and going far beyond dragons to discuss ones that have been overused and those which deserve more exposure. On a personal level I was pleased to see heads in the audience nodding as the panel pretty much agreed that today’s friendly, conversational, telepathic and pet dragons have gone as far as anyone needs to in denaturing the original scary beast. Because if anyone’s looking for devasting dragons, The Aldabreshin Compass ebooks should be just what they’re wanting…

There was also some discussion about humanity’s enduring fascination with and relationships with monsters, but as is invariably the case, there were so many interesting threads to the conversation that not all could be fully explored. I immediately thought of The Universal Monster Template Theory – but with time at a premium and since an audience member expanding at length on something tangential to the panel’s main discussion is bad convention manners, I held off sticking a hand up. That’s what blogs are for, after all.

So for those of you who didn’t come across this when I blogged about it before – because checking back, I discover that was in 2007! – here’s the Universal Monster Template Theory Bearing in mind that I’m summarising from a talk I went to given by cryptozoologist Richard Freeman who was in turn summarising the presumably considerable quantities of thought and argument that went into developing this.

Cryptozoologists are always interested in myths, since they seek out mythical creatures, and it has become apparent to them that wherever one goes in the world, there are common themes in monster myths. The six universals are giant hairy humanoids, little people (often magical), big mysterious dogs, big dangerous cats, giant snakes and flying predators – which are variously expressed as birds or dragons which also encroach on the giant snake theme.

One puzzle about this is while fear of enormous lizards or predatory cats may be perfectly reasonable in areas where crocodiles or tigers are part of the local fauna, these six archetypal monsters crop up everywhere, including in places that have never had even faintly relevant animals. And anyway having myths developed from local animals still doesn’t explain the persistence of giants and little people in folk lore.

At which point, we move to Madagascar, a place of considerable interest to cryptozoologists on account of its unique wildlife, its extinctions (or not) and its rich mythical culture. One puzzle there for zoologists, crypto and otherwise, is a particular behaviour of lemurs, which are, please note, a primitive primate, and as such, creatures whose overall behaviour is primarily instinctual rather than learned.

As I discovered recently visiting ‘Monkey World’ primate rescue centre in Dorset, lemurs and tamarinds can still successfully parent offspring even if their own prior treatment has been appalling and they were captured or separated from their own parents too young to have observed their own kind raising infants. Unlike the higher primates like chimps, orang-utans and gorillas; those seized as infants and separated from their own kind prove incapable of successfully mothering their own offspring.

Bear that in mind as we focus on the specific lemur behaviours which fascinate cryptozoologists. If something blots out the sun, be it a cloud or a plane or anything, lemurs will freeze and exhibit classic prey-animal-not-wanting-to-be-eaten reactions. But there’s nothing flying around Madagascar that is remotely big enough to carry off a lemur, and certainly not one of the largest species, but even the biggest animals exhibit exactly the same response.

But recent fossils discoveries have shown a truly massive eagle once lived there, umpty-thousand years ago. So it’s suggested that this prey-animal behaviour in lemurs is a very ancient instinct, carried over from the days when something could indeed swoop out of the sky and eat them.

So we return to the persistence of the six universal monsters in human myth. The theory goes that all these stories have grown out of humanity’s common subconscious because Homo Sapiens still has primitive instincts lurking in the most basic bits of the brain.

When we were Australopithecines living in the African savannah there were indeed other hominids/primates bigger and smaller, who didn’t make the evolutionary cut. There were creatures akin to Gigantopithecus as well as little hominids like Homo Florensis. Those Indonesian discoveries happened since I heard this talk, and I imagine had cryptozoologists hopping up and down with excitement.

At about 4’6″, our remote ancestors were certainly preyed upon by big dogs, big cats, giant snakes and big eagles all quite capable of carrying us off – these megafauna are in the fossil record along with the humanoid variants that similarly died out, and together with plain evidence of Australopithecines being eaten by such things.

That’s the theory anyway. Make of it what you will. I certainly find myself wondering what role this might be playing in the ongoing mythmaking about monsters which still goes on around us today. Does this lie behind the enduring belief in the Beast of Bodmin and other such creatures? Has Gigantopithecus morphed into Bigfoot in the popular imagination while instinctive fear of small hominids has evolved into tales of alien greys?

And have a rather wonderful picture of a lemur from our visit to Monkey World.


Are those who don’t follow Science Fiction condemning the rest of us to live it?

I’ve been experiencing a weird sort of déjà vu lately. A lot. Most recently, watching news footage of thousands of desperate refugees walking along a Hungarian motorway hard shoulder. I keep recalling a BBC drama film ‘The March’ from (as a little research shows me) 1990, in which thousands of Africans fleeing climate change walk to Europe. Their challenge to richer nations is help us or watch us die. Those richer nations don’t know how to cope…

I also recall at the time that film was dismissed as unnecessarily alarmist and melodramatic. Oh, no, they said, that could never really happen. How’s that opinion looking now?

Then there’s the US elections. I keep thinking back to John Brunner’s ‘The Sheep Look Up’ (first published 1972). I must have read that when I was a student, or certainly some time in the 80’s, because I remember considering the buffoonish, soundbite president ‘Prexy’ and thinking well, at least Ronald Reagan isn’t quite that bad. But now? Donald Trump? Yes, I can easily see him talking such gibberish while the world goes to hell in a handcart.

Not that we in the UK have any room for complacency. Who else is watching the media attacks and distortions surrounding Jeremy Corbyn and recalling A Very British Coup? Both the 1982 novel by Chris Mullin and the first TV adaptation for Channel 4 by Alan Plater, with Ray McAnally playing the lead; Harry Perkins is the unabashed socialist elected to lead the Labour Party, committed to challenging media bias, American hegemony and pro nuclear disarmament. Goodness, the Establishment cannot possibly have that…

I could go on. Ken Macleod’s ‘The Exection Channel’ is another title that springs to mind with unnerving regularity when I’m watching the news or reading the papers these days.

I suppose I should just be grateful that (so far) we’ve escaped the dire fate predicted for us all in Threads; another BBC film from 1984 dealing with the aftermath of nuclear war.

Anyone else experiencing anything similar? Anyone got other titles to add, from books, films or TV?

And how the hell do we get the politicians and decisions makers to start reading or watching this stuff and thinking about more than their own short-term careerist interests?

Well, we can at least make a start by using our votes and making the effort to write to our elected representatives. If there’s one thing that losing most of this past year to campaigning on EU digital VAT has shown me, it’s that enough single voices really can make a difference.

Let’s do it.

Online life for authors. The good, the bad and the ugly.

Three unrelated things last week have prompted a series of related thoughts on aspects of life online, particularly for authors. Because while the good is self-evident, in terms of interaction with readers and other writers that’s never been possibly before, it’s by no means an unmixed blessing.

The first thing was an author whom I’d don’t propose to name or link to, posting an explanation for cancelling a particular engagement. Not a guest of honour gig or something like that, just explaining their absence from an upcoming event. Because that author was forced to explain in order to quell successive waves of speculation. Simply saying, ‘unfortunately I won’t be there’ wasn’t sufficient. The author had tried that, only to find people were attributing this absence to a particular controversy tangentially involving them. No, the author said, it’s nothing to do with work, it’s a personal matter. Cue another round of speculation about possible domestic discord and such things. No, nothing like that, but a medical matter in the family. Oh no! Is it—?

At this point, the author chose to explain that a close family member is undergoing a challenging medical procedure that now clashes with the aforementioned event, and the author wishes to be on hand for their relative at that time. And rounds off that blogpost with a fervent wish that those reading this information will now forget it, since explaining has involved giving details about the family member and their condition which would otherwise have remained known only to close friends and relatives.

Which is why I am not linking. If you know the author, you don’t need telling. If you don’t, you don’t need to know who they are in order to think about the level of intrusion that’s increasingly hard to avoid when authors are now routinely expected by publicists and fans alike to live their lives online. Just to be clear, there’s no question that the vast majority of that concern for this author stems from positive motives. People wanted to know what they could do to help, what support they could offer. And that’s by no means a bad thing. All of us will be able to think of instances where online support, whether we’ve been offering it or receiving it, has been invaluable in the midst of some sort of strife, on or offline.

But managing how and when to draw demarcation lines between public and private life is becoming increasingly difficult.

On the other hand, there are some crucial things which an author is very much expected to never go public with. I’ve been thinking about that since last week’s second thing. A journalist contacted me asking what I thought about the Society of Authors campaign for fair and enforceable contracts for writers in their dealings with publishers.

You won’t be surprised to learn I’m all in favour of this. Because, since signing my first contract in 1997, I’ve seen attitudes among publishers to contracts that simply wouldn’t be tolerated in any other industry. By no means all publishers and certainly not all of the time, but things which have been clearly agreed are not infrequently completely ignored, from supposedly guaranteed time for a writer to review edits and proofs through to print runs being cut back or clearly contractually agreed editions of a book being cancelled without warning or recompense. I recommend having plenty of time and strong drink to hand before starting any conversation with an author about their experience of trying to get their rights in a book reverted.

Sometimes a publisher will offer a justification, invariably based on their business interests and unconcerned about the damage to a writer’s career. At other times the protesting author gets the email equivalent of a shrug and ‘if you don’t like it, lawyer up’. Right, because that’s something very few authors can ever afford to do.

And there’s always the implication, mostly unspoken though on occasion mentioned as a barely veiled threat, that an author who goes public with anything like this will be tagged as a troublemaker whom other publishers won’t ever want to work with. Because the book trade is a pretty small world.

It’s getting worse. These days, non-disclosure clauses are starting to crop up in publishers’ contracts, notably for anyone dealing with Amazon’s in-house imprints. This is a very worrying development. How exactly is a new author supposed to find out whether or not they’re being taken for a fool, if they’re not allowed to compare notes with better informed and more experienced writers?

So we’re expected to live our lives online, including sharing aspects which we’d personally rather keep private, as a trade off for the undoubted benefits we get – while at the same time, there are business matters vital to our own interests which we’re very firmly discouraged from openly discussing.

Obviously, writers do chat about such things privately and discreetly, but that’s not much use to anyone outside those confidential circles. And this silence definitely does nothing to help eliminate the persistent sharp practise which most readers would be horrified to learn of.

One way around such problematic aspects of online life is the pseudonym, especially for whistle-blowers dragging bad practice into the light. Except that can be highly problematic as well.

The third of last week’s unrelated things relates very much to that aspect of online life. A blog post went up revealing the real identity of the thoroughly unpleasant person who’s presented herself at various times as Winterfox, Requires Hate and most recently as Benjanun Sriduangkaew. Who has assiduously taken advantage of online anonymity for many, many years, to be calculatedly vile to people, so that’s the ugly right there.

I’m not going to link to that unmasking post – googling will find it for you fairly easily if you’re that curious. Firstly, the post includes serious accusations unrelated to online activity by RH/BS within SFF, about events of which I have no knowledge, or any way to verify, so that’s a cause for concern as I’ve no wish to risk spreading misinformation. Secondly, those who have linked to the post, predictably, have been assailed online by RH/BS and her acolytes with exaggerated and downright false accusations. The RH/BS clique have also done their best to play the victim card with obfuscating deliberations over what does or does not constitute doxxing. I have far better things to do with my time than get dragged into such tedious games.

Lastly if you google the name itself, you only get a handful of not very informative posts. While these serve to confirm her background of significant wealth and privilege, this has long been suspected by astute observers of things she’s let slip. The key identification in this saga has been tying the fake innocently sweet masquerade of Benjanun Sriduangkaew to Requires Hate’s now-well-documented history of spite.

For the purposes of this discussion, the fact of this unmasking is sufficient. For me the question’s never been if the prime mover behind RH/BS would be revealed, but merely when? Because even someone as diligent in deleting their internet history is going to leave some traces, and when someone’s behaviour is as sustained and vicious as hers has been, sooner rather than later, someone who’s been on the receiving end is going to be sufficiently provoked to do the necessary investigation and circulate their findings as widely as possible.

And unfortunately, that goes both ways. There are plenty of instances of people acting with the best of motives, for whom online anonymity has been a vital protection, who have been unmasked by those with hostile intent, with serious consequences for them personally and professionally.

So what do we do? How do we allow people the privacy they should reasonably be able to expect and the protections of anonymity which individuals may sometimes need, as well guarding against the consequences of people being pressured into silence and defending those subjected to anonymous malice?

Because at the moment, the balance seems skewed and the Internet’s not going to go away any time soon…

Thoughts and comments are invited and welcome, though please do not post links to either of the posts which I’ve chosen not to link to.

Hugo and Puppy thoughts

I’ve not blogged about the whole mess that’s been made of the Hugo Awards this year by overlapping cabals of the narrow-minded and entitled along with a clique of politically motivated, spiteful wreckers. I am extremely busy and besides, I’d largely be repeating the main points from this post on the Great SFWA Uproar of 2014.Why the SFWA Shoutback Matters

Also, a great many other thoughtful and engaged writers continue to explore the issues here. Two recent posts that I found particularly worth reading are

What’s the Point? Human Minds and Sad Puppies by Matthew M Foster, who shows remarkable level-headedness, considering this ego-driven exercise in malice and pique has effectively destroyed any chance of a posthumous Hugo for his late wife, Eugie More on that here.

BREAKFAST OF BULLSHIT: FUTUREPHOBIA, THE HUGOS AND THE INVENTION OF SF’S PAST by M D Lachlan – an emphatic deconstruction of the bogus arguments underpinning this nonsense – which have left so many of us utterly bemused and wondering just what SF these Puppy people have been reading and watching because their experience is light-years away from our own.

And now, back to my own work.

A quick glance at Waterstones recommended reading in June

Just in case you’re wondering I am still keeping an eye on Waterstones and gender bias issues. At some point I will do another analysis of their monthly promotional emails.

The latest for June will certainly help those statistics – a quick and dirty count shows ten books by female writers promoted alongside twelve by men.

There are still issues – apparently women don’t write history/non-fiction as all those titles are by male authors.

But detailed analysis will have to wait as I contemplate the best way to tackle digitizing the Aldabreshin Archipelago map :)

Musing on the Half-life of Humour

I’ve been reading ‘A Slip of the Keyboard’, a collection of non-fiction by the late and so very much lamented Sir Terry Pratchett. It’s an interesting read on many levels. There’s one trainee journalist I know who definitely should read it. But that’s not what this is about.

There’s reference made in passing to ‘Spem in Alium’, a famous piece of English choral music by Thomas Tallis, composed in 1570. I am incidentally a great fan of such choral music and sang in a very highly regarded church choir in my teens, got my Royal School of Church Music medals and we once sang in Salisbury Cathedral. But that’s not what this is about either.

The thing is, as an erstwhile Classicist, I can’t read ‘Spem in Alium’ without mentally translating it into ‘Hope in Garlic’ and inwardly giggling, as an inveterate fan of puns. It’s actually ‘Hope in Another’, for those of you who don’t have the Latin, as the late Peter Cook would say. (And how old do you have to be, for that reference to make any sense?)

Given I’m reading Terry Pratchett, I immediately think what a great Discworldian motto ‘Spem in Allium’ would make for a family of vampire hunters! Until they met the Count de Magpyr – but that’s a different story. ‘Carpe Jugulum’ to be precise. Which is another Latin based joke, of course, riffing on Carpe Diem.

So now I’m wondering, how long will these jokes be funny now that Latin is no longer taught in any widespread sense? Satirists like Flanders and Swann in the 60’s could get a roar of laughter in a packed theatre when they’re talking about newspapers on the ‘At the Drop of a Hat’ recording, and translate ‘O Tempora! O Mores!’ as ‘Oh, Times! Oh Daily Mirror!’ Could that happen today?

And this goes beyond Latin and indeed goes beyond humour. Just as Classics courses at universities now offer places to those with no Latin or Greek and include intensive language study from the start, so English Literature faculties are now including texts like the Bible in their first year courses because they can no longer assume that students will arrive with sufficient ‘cultural Christianity’ to engage as fully as possible with Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example. Is that a good thing, or a bad one? Or is it simply a thing to adapt to and move on?

What does all this mean for popular or indeed, high-brow culture? Who knows? But we can definitely see this shift taking place.

Not that this is a recent phenomenon, as evidenced by a conversation I had a few months ago with a Son. Son was passing through the lounge, where I was reading and there was a concert playing on the telly.

He halted, his attention caught by the music. ‘Oh, I know this – what’s it called?’
Me, not looking up. ‘Elgar, Nimrod.’
Son, affronted. ‘I only asked.’
Me, glancing up, slightly surprised. ‘And I only answered.’
Son, still indignant. ‘You didn’t have to call me a Nimrod.’
Me, putting book down. ‘What are you talking about? It’s the name of the piece – Nimrod, the mighty hunter. It’s by the composer Elgar.’
Son, baffled ‘How did that end up meaning a stupid person?’
Me, now equally baffled. ‘What on earth are you talking about?’

Well, it turns out that for the sons’ generation, ‘Nimrod’ is indeed an insult and they have no knowledge of the Biblical reference to contradict it.

For that, believe it or not, we can thank Bugs Bunny. Back in the 1940s, he would refer mockingly to Elmer Fudd as ‘poor little Nimrod’, ‘what a Nimrod’ and so on. US cinema audiences began using it as an insult for buffoons like Elmer. With any knowledge of the Biblical origin? Who can say – but the mocking term was soon standing alone without any need for explanation, certainly in American English.

Given the exponential proliferation of pop culture these days, I am wondering where future writers, humorous and otherwise, will find sufficiently common references to draw on? What will they do, when there’s a distinct possibility that only a handful of people will get a particular joke? Use it or lose it?

What about the people who don’t get the joke? How will they feel? For instance, in the first Avengers movie, the use of a quotation from Ezekiel instantly identified those few of us who laughed out loud as the ones in the cinema who’d also seen Pulp Fiction. How distracting was that for the rest of the audience? Realising they’d missed something but having no idea what it might be. I still wonder.

I don’t have any answers. Anyone got any observations or thoughts?

Well, if BBC Radio 4 says I’m a fantasy novelist, it must be true!

Did anyone get the memo saying this was going to be the week for folk listening to me talk? I must have missed it…

Today sees the broadcast of an episode in the BBC Radio Four ‘A History of Ideas’ series where I was invited to contribute.

Philosopher Jules Evans is exploring Jung and the shadow inside all of us. Including archive contributions from Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud; plus Mark Vernon, author of Carl Jung: How to Believe – and me.

(another nice reminder that life isn’t all EU VAT!)

Welcoming Omenana – Africa’s New Speculative Fiction Magazine

This looks really, really interesting! Wole Talabi tells us –

As someone who has been reading stories from foreign spec-fic mags since I was a young teenager, I’m very pleased to have my own story Crocodile Ark published in the first issue of this new African Spec-Fic Zine – Omenana – edited by Mazi Nwonwu and Chinelo Onwualu.

I know many Africans who have been trying to write spec-fic without any clear sense of the genre and its forms (I also tried to do it with my now defunct The Alchemists Corner column on TNC but I was undirected and the audience wasn’t quite right). Mazi and Chinelo have now taken a small but supremely significant step with creating Omenana; giving a place for all the scattered, isolated pockets of African writers that venture into spec-fic in their blogs, skirt it in their books, and occasionally publish it in other magazines, to converge on and call home.

Click through to his blog to read the full article

Initiatives like this are absolutely central to enriching the SF&Fantasy genre with new voices and new perspectives. How often have you heard someone who’s drifted away from SF&F saying, ‘well, yeah, it got to be just the same old stuff coming round again…’ Honestly, it’s not about ticking political correctness and salving our liberal ‘Western’ consciences (yes, I do know Europe is to the north of the continent). It’s about finding genuinely new, different, exciting and thought provoking things to read. And along the way, learning that the view of Africa we see through the mass media is woefully simplistic, even when it’s not downright wrong (and often insultingly so).

So let’s get behind this! Click here for the pdf of Issue One! Trust me, you want to see that cover art…!

And look! A post that’s not about European VAT!

Oh, hang on…

This digital age is wonderful for giving a voice to writers like this – especially as new technology is enabling Africa to leap forward straight into online reading and distribution, which is so vital given the lack of infrastructure on that continent for transporting hardcopy reading material, from magazines to vital textbooks.

Digital… er, hang on, does that mean African writers are going to get caught up in all this awful VAT mess, if they’re going to try to sell digital downloads into Europe. Y’know, where most of their customers will be, especially for the Francophone countries…?

Shutupshutupshutup! Not everything is about bloody VAT, Jules, even if it’s taken over your life!

No, hang on. This really is a thing. So far we’ve been talking about how it might affect UK and US sellers and those from other more developed countries across Europe. It’s time we started talking about the impact on initiatives like this. It really matters.

So if you have any way to flag up this to organisations who can help us make a noise about the far reaching and damaging implications of these new EU VAT rules on initiatives in the developing world, please, do so.

The Classics, Science Fiction and Fantasy

It’s not only the fantasy end of the speculative fiction genre that owes an awful lot to history. So does science fiction – something recognised by the Science Fiction Foundation when they put together their 2013 conference “Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space: The Fantastika and the Classical World”. The most recent issue of the SFF journal ‘Foundation’ includes a selection of papers from the event. As you can imagine, being a Classics graduate myself, these are of considerable interest to me.

What can looking backwards contribute to our understanding and enjoyment of the literature of the future and of imagined, secondary worlds? Granted, all contemporary writing ultimately has its roots in the Classics but surely the arrow of time should be pointing us in the other direction, to see where creative developments will take us? Not so. As far as I am concerned, a Janus-headed approach offers far more benefits.

Authors of prose fiction, graphic novels and those writing for the screen, large and small, continue to draw on the Classical myths and motifs that can so often provide points of contact and a common frame of reference for readers and viewers widely separated by geography, educational systems and life experience. This alone is argument enough for the continued teaching of Classical literature in our schools and not merely the works of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Where readers (of all faiths and none) can pick up an author’s subtle references and allusions, thanks to a working knowledge of writing from the Bible to the Epic of Gilgamesh, this significantly enhances their depth of understanding and thus their enjoyment.

Then there are two ways of looking the use of such myths and allusions. Firstly we can see how a writer adopts and adapts Classical motifs and find insights into their creative process and its evolution throughout an individual career. We can also trace their contribution to the development of archetypes such as the hero and the villain, both within SF and Fantasy and in wider literature.

Secondly we can analyse a writer’s choice and use of Classical elements in the light of their own life and times. Academic or amateur, every historian learns how interpretation of sources, from potsherds to plays, says at least as much about the onlooker’s where and when as it does about the material in hand. For instance, for more than a century, authors have used the rise and fall of the Roman Empire to explore problematic aspects of cultural and political hegemony from the heyday of British Imperialism to the Cold War and beyond. Of course, Science Fiction and Fantasy have always done this; using somewhere far, far away and long ago or far ahead, to stand outside the world we live in and thus gain a clearer perspective.

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. That much is true. However studying the Classics and Speculative Fiction alike shows us time and again, that however different externals like hemlines and hairdos might be, humanity’s concerns remain constant and eternal. Love of family. Longing for security. Fear of the Other and of the Unknown. Tensions as to when the needs of the many must outweigh the needs of the few.

In the midst of our current uncertainties, with so many selfishly seeking to exploit political, cultural and religious differences for short-term gain, we can all benefit from the seeing how much more unites us than divides us, through the storyteller’s eye.

Remembrance. Of those who couldn’t speak of war and of those who told me vital truths.

It’s a bit odd to see all the Centenary of the Great War commemoration this year when I can remember talking to men and women who lived through it. Granted I was a very little girl when my Great Uncle Harold explained he’d been in the Royal Flying Corps, in the skies above the Western Front.

I’m pretty sure I was five, which makes sense because the twenty-fifth anniversary of D-Day in 1970 would most likely have prompted me to ask what he did in ‘the war’ as we walked to the paper shop one sunny summer morning, when we were visiting my grandma’s elder sisters in Rustington on Sea. So Great Uncle Harold explained he’d been too old for the war when Grandpa had been in the RAF but he’d been in the war before that in the RFC. No, he hadn’t been a pilot. He’d been a bomber, in those open-cockpit bi-planes, which meant sitting in the back seat, setting the fuses and literally dropping bombs by hand over the side. I remember him talking about seeing the trenches – on both sides – so far below, with the men scurrying like ants and all looking exactly the same. I vividly remember him pausing, looking away into the middle distance and saying with heartfelt passion, ‘Poor devils.’ Then and now I don’t believe he was making any distinction between English and German forces.

My grandma and grandpa were seven years old when the Great War broke out, so they only remembered it as children. My grandpa recalled seeing zeppelins going over Felixstowe where he lived, heading for bombing raids on London. My grandma remembered her eldest brother, Albert, coming home from the trenches where he served from 1914 to 1918. Her mother saw him at the front gate and ran to hug him, only for him to say, ‘Don’t touch me, Mother, I’m crawling with lice.’ So the gardener had to set up a bath in the greenhouse where Albert could strip off and scrub himself down with carbolic soap. Grandma was naturally sent well away. Equally naturally she crept down the garden later, so see what she could see. Albert’s uniform was burning on a bonfire and she couldn’t even see the water in the bath for the layer of vermin covering it.

That’s all she learned about life on the Western Front because Albert never spoke of his experiences to anyone in his family. He gradually lost contact with them, especially after he became involved in the Spiritualist Church. Since then I’ve learned how many people turned to mediums through the 1920s, hoping to make contact with those who had died in the war. It’s impossible to know what Albert experienced but we can guess at some lifelong trauma. He died before I was born, not least from the lingering effects of being gassed.

We know of at least one traumatic experience which my stepfather’s father, Grandpa Joe, suffered in World War Two, but only because sorting through his effects after his death turned up the Distinguished Flying Medal and its accompanying citation. He would tell a few war stories, like borrowing an American jeep in Paris after the Liberation and driving it through the Arc de Triomphe. But he never told anyone, not even his wife, about the day when the Lancaster bomber where he was a radio operator, took such heavy fire that everybody was killed apart from him and one of the gunners. Between them those two young men flew the plane full of their dead comrades back to England and landed it safely. Whatever he thought of being called a hero, he took that to his grave.

Someone else who went all through the Great War in the trenches was Mr Brown who lived a few doors up from my grandparents. He never spoke of those four years either, according to my grandfather who was his friend. Not that I ever spoke to Mr Brown beyond saying hello if our paths crossed when I was walking the dog. He would smile and tip his hat to me and say good morning or good afternoon. He always wore a hat because he was Jewish; I knew that long before I had any clear idea what being Jewish meant. Because grandparents can’t tell war stories to a child like me without being asked ‘but why?’

Well, I never did understand who Kaiser Bill was or what he’d wanted until much later on, but the Nazis were more straightforward. There had been a second war because the Nazis wanted to invade and kill all the people they didn’t like. People like Mr and Mrs Brown. Why didn’t the Nazis like them? Because they’re Jewish. What’s Jewish? Apparently that meant only reading Old Testament stories from the Bible, going to somewhere called a synagogue instead of a church on Saturday instead of Sunday and if you were Mr Brown, always wearing a hat. Which did no harm to anyone and was no one’s business but their own. So that was clear enough. The Nazis had to be stopped from killing Mr Brown just because he was Jewish!

The Nazis, not the Germans. That was a distinction I was very clear on, from as early as I can remember, thanks to stories like how Mr Marsden won his medal. He was my grandparents’ next door neighbour and even as a small child, I remember him as a little man, short and slightly built, among the other grown-ups. Presumably this was why he was a clerk in the Pay Corps rather than a front line fighter in World War Two. That didn’t stop him being sent to Normandy in the week after D-Day. I realised the army’s inexorable logic as I grew older; someone had to update the records of all the dead who wouldn’t need their next pay packet.

Somehow or other, Mr Marsden got separated from his unit and ended up wandering round Normandy on his own as the shadows lengthened. He turned a corner in a country lane and came face to face with two young Germans about his own age, none of them over twenty. They all looked at each other. No one reached for a gun. Who knows who said hello first but he spoke a bit of German and they spoke some English. That was enough to establish that no one wanted to kill anyone. Since it was getting dark, they found a dry ditch where they could spend the night without getting shot by soldiers from either side. He had some chocolate and they had some bread, so they shared that all between them and showed each other family photographs and talked about their lives.

At some point they realised they’d better have a plan for the morning, so no one got shot, either as an enemy soldier or for fraternisation. So they decided their story would be the heroic capture of a prisoner or prisoners, depending which side they met first. Meantime, they exchanged names and addresses, agreeing to write to each other whenever the war finally ended, if they got home safe. Dawn came and off they went to find the Second World War. The first soldiers they encountered were an American unit and so the German lads were safely taken prisoner and Mr Marsden ended up getting a medal for capturing two enemy soldiers single handed. He found that very amusing but the most important thing to him was exchanging letters after the war and knowing those two young men got back to their families, just the same as him.

So this is why I wear a poppy and pause to mark Remembrance Day, for the sake of ordinary young men who found themselves in extraordinary and often appalling situations, which marked them, one way or another, for the rest of their lives. For the sake of their stories, retold in hopes that young men like my own sons, and everyone else’s children, won’t ever see such history repeated.