September Review 2019

The September review is already here. The month has passed quickly. To be honest, September is a month during which I am totally consumed with my day job. Being a new academic year and seeing how I have several responsibilities at work, I either find the time slipping away with workload or exhaust myself, so I am of little use in the evenings. The photo shows one of my more engaging lessons at this time of year, a modern adaptation of the classic Mark Pullen Schools History Project lesson.  Nevertheless, I still got a reasonable number of things done, mainly due to the space given by the morning commute.
September Review – word counts

Unlike July and August, I’ve not had a prolific month in terms of word counts. Instead, I’ve spent quite a bit of time on the editing process. For the first couple of weeks, I wrote at about half the daily pace of the previous months. For the second half of the month, I concentrated on editing. This means I fell short of my optimistic target of 1,000 words a day, and also my realistic target of 500 words a day. In total, I wrote 5,967 words, leaving me just 165 words short of my goal of 110,000 words for the year. However, it has been worth the distraction as my back catalogue needs tidying up.
September Review – works in progress

A short story set in the Royal Zombie Corps series. The title is provisionally ‘On discovering a zombie’. I’ve now finished a thorough edit of this, but have to proof-read it yet.  Once it is released, it will only be available for people signing up to my mailing list
Book 5 of the  Royal Zombie Corps series, titled ‘Outbreak London’ has had a thorough edit. I’m now halfway through proof-reading this. The cover brief was submitted on the last day of the month, and I’m looking forward to working to seeing the first drafts during October
Book 6 of the Royal Zombie Corps series, is awaiting my attention.  It needs editing and proof-reading
Book 2 of the Butcher’s Funeral series is also awaiting an edit and proof-read
Book 7 of the Royal Zombie Corps series, is the current writing project. This has been put on hold so I can meet my upcoming deadlines

September Review – other projects

My first zombie book, Blood, Mud and Corpses, has now been wholly reedited and proof-read. It was uploaded to most channels early in September.
Publishing schedule

This remains unchanged, due to a reallocation of my time.

November 2019 – Outbreak London, book 5 of the Royal Zombie Corps series
December 2019 – book 6 of the Royal Zombie Corps series
January 2020 – Butcher’s Funeral book two
February 2020 – book 7 of the Royal Zombie Corps series

Plans for October

I am going to aim for a low average of 2-300 words a day of new writing. I have limited time at the moment and need to focus on the editing process
Publish a short story on the blog. This has been on the list for a while. I wrote the story a couple of years ago. I really need to get it done.  An edit has been completed, but I still need to give it another proof-read. Realistically, this will not happen in October
Release the new Royal Zombie Corps short story to the mailing list and advertise it on Facebook. The editing was completed in September.
Finish the proof-reading of Outbreak London and work with the cover artist on the finalisation of the cover
Continue to learn about publishing and writing, specifically working through one of the Mark Dawson SPF courses

August Review 2019

So here is the August review.  Why is there a picture of Nutella biscuits, you ask?  I first came across these scrummy biscuits in Malta last October.  I am not usually a Nutella fan, but these biscuits are confectionary cocaine.  I scoffed the lot and then found out only a limited supply had been made available.  They are not available in the UK, and the Malta supply was some sort of stunt or market research.  My children have never forgiven me for not saving them any.  During August, on a day trip to Bruges, we stopped in the supermarket on the edge of Calais and found box after box of these biscuits.  The shelves were also packed with them.  They have been available in France for a few months now.  Needless to say, I stocked up on these addictive biscuits and finally gave some to my children.  We were probably the only British people in the supermarket without a trolley full of wine and beer.  We had biscuits instead.

August is the best time of year for me to write.  As a teacher, it is the month when I have the least schoolwork to do.  That doesn’t mean there’s no schoolwork, but less than normal.  As usual, this August has been better than all the other months so far this year.  However, this August has also been the best August I have had since I started writing.

August Review – word counts

So, July was my previous best-ever month for new words of fiction.  August beat it.  Aiming at is just over 9000 words, I managed to write 27,707 words.

Freed from the daily commute, I was quickly able to put in time most mornings to get some writing done.  The pushed up my daily average from 718 words a day in July, to 894 words a day in August.  I have also been experimenting with using Dragon Anywhere, a piece of dictation software. By dictating the text, I can write quite a bit quicker, although it does mean I have spent quite a bit more time correcting the manuscript.  This gives me a chance to review and improve the story.  It also makes it is quicker to get down key ideas, so I do not rush my typing when I want to get to a critical point.

The other key milestone in August was that I cleared 100,000 words written so far this year.  As I started the year aiming only to write 110,000 words, I am pleased that I should achieve my annual goal at some point in September.

August Review – works in progress

  • A short story set in the Royal Zombie Corps series.  I am yet to decide a title for this but have written the first draft of this short story.  It is a prequel, set just before the first book, telling the story of Dr Hudson’s early involvement in zombie research
  • Book 6 of the Royal Zombie Corps series, titled either Duel or Dead Handler.  As expected, I finished this at the start of August
  • Book 7 of the Royal Zombie Corps series, as yet unnamed.  I started this during the second half of August and am now 9000 words in.

August Review – other projects

The two main thrusts of my work in August have been in marketing and re-editing.  I have continued to re-edit and format Blood, Mud and Corpses, and am nearly finished on this.  I have also completed a relatively significant redesign of the blog site while revamping the mailing list.  A top cover artist has been commissioned for several new covers, some of which will be to replace the old covers of already published books.

During August, I incorporated the publishing process as Harvey and Harvey Publishing Ltd.  There was a fair bit of paperwork around this, but it should help organise my writing moving forward.

Publishing schedule

Plans for September

  • Maintain an average daily word count of 1000 new words – this will be quite a challenge as it is hard to find the time each day to maintain this level alongside my full-time job.  500 words would probably be a more appropriate target and may become the default
  • Publish a short story on the blog. This is almost ready but needs an edit. I had planned to do this during August, but it didn’t happen
  • Edit through the new Royal Zombie Corps short story and then make available via at the mailing list and advertise on Facebook
  • Complete the re-edit of Blood, Mud and Corpses and publish this new edition
  • Edit Outbreak London, something that was on my August list, but was not started
  • Continue to learn about publishing and writing

July Review 2019

The reason for a July review is that writing takes time, and I’m not blessed with lots to spare.  So while I already keep track of where I’m at, and what I’m doing, I think I should publicly share this as a form of accountability.  Accountability motivates me and keeps me focused, especially when there are other demands upon my time.

July Review Word Counts

July 2019 has been my best ever month for new words.  I was aiming to hit 9,453 words, a daily average of 305.  This would enable me to stay on track for my goal of 110,000 words this year.  However, I hit 22,268 words during the month, a daily average of 718.

Why did I smash my target?  One reason was that I was more disciplined during my daily commute.  I can usually manage 500 words on the way to work in the morning.  I’ve found the sweet spot on the train, where I can park my bike, get on, and still not be crowded out by all the other commuters.  I’ve also been a little more disciplined in the evenings, making sure that on average, I manage a few more words.  The last week and a half of July is also holiday time for me.  I managed to maintain my word totals when I was often clearing 1,000 words a day but did not overall increase during the holiday.

July Review Works in progress

  • Outbreak London – book 5 of the Royal Zombie Corps series.  I came up with the name this month.  I’m currently sitting on the book until I get an opportunity to edit it.  This will likely be my next release.
  • Butcher’s Funeral book 2.  Still currently unnamed, although I’m playing with titles at the moment.  This book is next on my editing list.
  • Book 6 of the Royal Zombie Corps series.  It may be called Duel, or Dead Handler.  Most of my writing during July was focused on this book, and I have one more chapter to write.  This it will join the editing list.

July Review Other projects

I’ve spent a lot of time this month looking at marketing, especially Mark Dawson and the Self-Publishing Formula.  Getting some of the ideas from these sources into place has taken quite a bit of my holiday time so far, hence no significant holiday boost in writing.  I have also redesigned the blog, a work in progress.  Finally, I have been re-editing and formatting Blood, Mud and Zombies as part of my efforts to improve my back catalogue.

Plans for August

  • Maintain an average daily word count of 1,000 new words – I’m currently working at this level, but need to cut down the low word count days that bring the average down
  • Publish a short story on the blog.  I’m making the finishing touches to this as it’s an unpublished short I wrote a couple of years ago
  • Edit as much of the back catalogue as possible
  • Edit Outbreak London
  • Rearrange the whole publishing process via incorporation
  • Continue to learn and apply as much as I can about publishing
  • Commission the artwork for Outbreak London, with plans to recover all the back catalogue where possible
  • Complete changes to the blog

The Lehman Trilogy – a night at the theatre

I make no pretence to being a theatre reviewer.  I simply have the good fortune to live on the edge of London.  This gives me the opportunity to visit the theatre every few months.  To be fair, I am far more inclined towards musicals than plays, but in recent years I’ve seen a number of excellent plays.  The standout play, I have seen this decade, was Red Velvet, starring Adrian Lester.  The Lehman Trilogy is equally good, possibly having the edge.

The Lehman Trilogy – a haunted office

The first act of The Lehman Trilogy starts in the modern day offices of Lehman’s, as the radio announces the failure of the bank.  What proceeds is an excellently acted story by a trio of actors, their characters seemingly haunting the modern setting of the deserted bank.  The set itself is excellent, rotating and cleverly used by the cast.  Despite being sat in the Grand Circle of the Picadilly Theatre, we could clearly see what was going on.

The three actors, Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles bring alive the history of the Lehman family from their arrival in the USA.  The story flows incredibly well, each actor swapping roles, even genders, to cleverly bring the story to life.  A combination of excellent timing and perfect delivery of the funnier lines means that you are completely sucked into the story.

At three and a half hours, including two short intervals, I expected the story to drag.  If anything, by the final act, the story is getting a little too light, rushing to the conclusion.  However, it still works brilliantly.  That the tiny cast can maintain the pace and variety, is a testament to their ability as actors.

The history of Lehman Brothers

From a historical point of view, the story was easy to plot against the rise of King Cotton; the US Civil War; the railroad boom; Great War; Great Depression; World War; Cold War through to the final collapse of the bank.  A handy timeline was included in the programme, allowing you to refresh your mind, although the clever story-telling led the audience through each period.  

It was interesting listening to a group of people behind me fitting these pieces together in the second interval, helping them to recognise how the inter-war economy failed – it’s not GCSE History, but it plays true to the narrative students would know.  If anything, the play neatly shows the rise of capitalism in the USA and how this specific company fell foul of modern financing and the lack of effective regulation.  To be fair, the play does gloss lightly over the more recent parts of the story.  It is still very successful at getting across the cut-throat ethos of modern trading.  Yet, it would be much harder to engagingly show the audience how Lehman’s manipulated the figures to hide their fatal weaknesses.

With Sam Mendes directing, as well as an excellent cast, superb writing and a cleverly linked musical accompaniment on the piano, this is a play that is worth your time and money.

The signs of getting old

The signs of getting old

Well, it’s finally happening, one of the critical signs of getting old.  I can ignore all the grey hair.  The expanding waistline is apparently too much food and not enough exercise.  The creaking joints can even be explained away by being overweight, or too much standing on my feet at work.  However, what couldn’t be ignored was my left eye struggling to focus on books when they’re close to my face.

Of course, the Kindle has managed to hide this for a while.  Most of my leisure reading is on the Kindle or in magazines.  My reading for work is usually relatively large print or sizeable handwriting.  With the Kindle, just making the text a little bigger and the problem goes away.  However, the tiny print in Harry Turtledove’s ‘Bomb’s Away’ really made it clear that I needed to get an eye test done.

Off for the inevitable eye test

To be fair, I’d been considering an eye test this summer holiday.  I’ve been aware that getting old, specifically anyone over 40, can lead to presbyopia.  It’s been a while since I had an eye test and I’ve been putting it off for a while.  I’ve always been proud of my 20/20 vision, happy to tease the nearsighted by standing on the beach and spotting the ships travelling the English Channel on, and slightly beyond, the horizon.  So I steeled myself for a visit to Specsavers, ready for evidence (more) that I’m getting old.

Fortunately, the consultant was much subtle than ‘you’re old now’.  I pretty much said, going in, that I’d be needing reading glasses and that’s exactly what was prescribed.  Nothing too strong, but enough to make the difference.  However, this led to the new dilemma of working out what frames to order.  Nearly an hour later, I’d settled on a couple of pairs having tried everything from bright ‘extraverted’ glasses to ones that made me look like I was in the Stazi in a dodgy 1970s spy movie.

Making a difference

A week later and I’d picked up the new glasses.  What a difference.  My eyes are now getting quicker at combining the two images – one eye is weaker than the other, but both have got old.  The constant fingerprints are getting tedious though.

So, yes, I’m getting old.  It’s official.  I’m at the age when our eyes begin to fail us.  I’m not actually writing this with glasses on right now as I’m touch typing while watching the Channel 4 news.  I’ll be wearing them when I proof-read this blog.  Perhaps I’ll spot, and correct, a few more mistakes than I’d usually pick up?  I won’t be checking them until after I’ve planned some vegetables in my garden while wearing my comfy slippers, smoking an old pipe.  Ah, I feel the need for a mug of Horlicks and an early night.

Horlicks to that!  It’s just middle age.  Getting old doesn’t happen until your 80’s these days.

Time Machine – flash fiction

I’m not the best person at maintaining routine, especially for writing blogs. Probably the biggest reason for this is that there are so many demands upon my time. Not only do I try to spend my spare time writing, but I also have a job that can easily become all-consuming. This is, of course, forgetting all the demands of everyday life. Unfortunately, I do not have a time machine.  So to help me come up with some ideas for blogs, I recently came across an excellent little book in Waterstones. “642 tiny things to write about” is an excellent little book full of writing ideas and prompts for writing and flash fiction. So for this blog post I’m going to choose one of them and write about it.


Task: “the passenger safety instructions card for a time travel machine”

Welcome to your Acme Time travel machine.

Important operating instructions

Failure to follow the instructions results in no liability for the manufacturer or inventor of this Time Machine. Please read the following instructions carefully and follow them to the letter.

1. Ensure that heads or limbs are entirely in the time machine before operating.

2. Ensure that all important documents, such as sports almanacs, have been left outside of the time machine and do not travel back in time.

3. Do not claim any titles or heraldry that you are not entitled to.

4. Under no circumstances should you interfere with your conception. See Futurama or Red Dwarf for further details.

5. Jean-Claude Van Damme will not come to the rescue if you mess up the timeline.

6. People in the past, or the future, may have trouble understanding your language, habits, mode of dress, or even your intentions. Investigate thoroughly before travelling.

7. Customisation of time machines to look like DeLorean’s or police boxes will void warranty.

8. Do not waste your time trying to assassinate Hitler. All the assassinations failed. Do you really want to put someone more competent in charge?

9. Avoid key historical events. It may get a little crowded with other time travellers.  The people of the time may notice your time machine, or your fellow travellers.

10. All time travel to late-20th century Wales, especially Cardiff, is off-limits.  No, you may not kidnap Captain Harkness.

11. The transportation of animals, plants, and food, is prohibited. Dinosaurs are not appropriate pets for your nephew’s children.

13. Do not upset the apes.

14. A paradox cannot be created, because that would be a paradox. Stop trying to change things.

15. Do not step on any butterflies.

16. The Federation will never exist.

17. “A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away.” The clue is in “far far away”.

17. Please do not tell anybody “I’ll be back.” It is mildly irritating, intimidating, and cliched.

19. Joyriding with H.G.Wells or George Orwell, is strictly prohibited.

20. Get a life and stop interfering in the past, or the future. Live in the now.

Dunkirk – A review

Perhaps this is an overdue post in more than one sense.  Dunkirk come out in the cinema in July 2017 and I nearly went to see it on several occasions during the summer holiday.  I had certainly been anticipating this movie.  With the ‘endless’ school holiday stretching before me, I should have managed to see it.  However, as is usual, the holiday passed quickly, helped by a mountain of work that I had to complete before returning to school.

It was much the same situation with the DVD release just before Christmas.  I bought a copy, thinking the Christmas holiday is ahead, I will watch it then.  A week of illness and a week of essential school admin work put pay to that idea.  Facing an impending mountain of marking upon returning to work, I found an evening in January.  I knew that this last evening was essentially going to be the calm before the storm.  What better way could I spend this final evening of rest, than by watching a DVD that I hoped would not just entertain, but also be useful in the classroom.

Much has been written about aspects of the historical accuracy of this movie.  The hundreds of Indian soldiers, who were evacuated from Dunkirk, were not present in the movie.  This was probably more excusable than the media furore suggested.  The number of Indian soldiers evacuated at Dunkirk was a fraction of the total troops who escaped the trap.  Dunkirk was the wrong movie to show the war-time contribution of India.  This is a contribution that needs addressing in British story-telling.

The absences that really stuck out, were perhaps made more obvious by the media debate over the missing Indian presence.  Totally absent were the Germans, other than a few token faces at the end of the movie and a series of aircraft.  The French were also grossly underrepresented, although at least there was an acknowledgement of the colonial composition of some of their forces.  I would have preferred for the actors, playing the French, to have been representing the brave French holding the line.  Instead they were among the group trying to escape on the mole.  Where were the French who escaped through Dunkirk?  W here were the French who held off the Germans until the evacuation was complete?  Dunkirk as a British story, is a half story.

One of the greatest absences were those of the British themselves.  Where were they?  Allegedly there were thousands of extras, yet they were used in few scenes.  The beach was naked, hardly a soul to be seen.  Surely CGI could have filled the beach with the thousands of souls that were evacuated each day?  At times it looked as if there were a handful of actors and a very empty beach.  On 30th May, nearly 30,000 soldiers were evacuated via the beach.  The next day 45,000 were picked up from the harbour.

The film looked extremely flaky in this respect, in the best traditions of the 1950s and 1960s movies that would dress up Sherman tanks as Soviet T34s or Me-108s as Me-109s.  Many movies seem to use the wrong equipment, and Dunkirk almost avoids drawing this accusation.  There was little dressing up or dubious substitutions.  A disappointing use of CGI was the Stuka dive-bombers, understandable as there are no flying examples today.  This was in stark contrast to the He-111 and Me109s.  The 109s were the later Spanish version, which had also been used to excellent effect simulating the original German aircraft in the movie ‘The Battle of Britain’.  The He-111 was an excellent radio-controlled model.  Two of the Spitfires were also marks that were in use in 1940, and the black and white belly paint scheme was also accurately shown, something missed in many dramas.  It was great to see these small details as their absence can pull the nerdier among us out of a story – something that the excellent plot in SS-GB managed to compensate for after an early scene in the movie used completely the wrong model of Spitfire.  Yes, I did moan about SS-GB at the time, a legacy of far too many Airfix models as a child.

Far more jarring, in terms of substitute equipment, was the use of a real destroyer.  For the average movie-goer, these things simply do not matter, and as the film had mostly got this sort of thing right, it would probably escape notice.  Yet, for someone who spent far too long looking at the silhouettes of Second World War warships as a teenager, something was not quite right.  The gun turrets on the destroyer did not look appropriate to the period, being more like post-war turrets.  A quick check on the internet showed that the film had used a post-war French destroyer, the Maille-Brez.  With their usual lack of accuracy, the Daily Mail even claimed this was a genuine 1930’s British destroyer.  It was a shame HMS Cavalier was not used as it is much closer to the designs used in 1940, being commissioned in 1944.  There are two other British World War II destroyers still afloat, albeit one is in Canada and the other in Egypt, perhaps these could have been CGI-ed in, rather than have the Maille-Brez physically present?

The greatest absence of all was a plot.  With the amazing backdrop of Dunkirk, this should not have been a criticism, yet the movie seems to go out of it’s way to avoid telling anything more complicated than a series of simple two or three part sub-plots.  I cannot overlook the lack of story considering the wealth of wartime accounts that exist.  Instead the movie draws out the few plodding plots, slowly overlapping them, the timelines slowly merging.  Where are the accounts of the fierce defence of the shrinking perimeter?  What about the many stories of different men being evacuated?  How about the many stories of the French and British warships struggling under attack?  Where are the many Little Ships?  Instead of the many amazing stories from the battle, we got a plodding narrative that lacks pace and emotional engagement.

Overall, the movie was a great disappointment.  Not only did the plot greatly disappoint me, it is of little use to me in the classroom.  Dunkirk lacks the set-pieces of movies such as Saving Private Ryan.  This means that the pace will not draw the attention of the modern teenager with their limited attention span in the classroom.  The movie does little to address the idea of a victory snatched from defeat.  This is a staple of Year 9 interpretive work.  Lovely shooting of the aerial battle as least makes the movie useful for school investigations into advances in air combat.  Dunkirk could also lead to a classroom debate on the contribution of non-white Empire forces, and how they are shown in movies.

Free book – Blood, Mud and Corpses

Blood, Mud and Corpses is now free at your favourite online bookseller.  Blood, Mud and Corpses is the first book in the four book series, Royal Zombie Corps.

Set during World War One, a group of British soldiers stumble across a potentially war-winning weapon in the trenches of the Western Front.  Follow Alfie Marsh as he completes his training.  As one of the first British conscripts of the war, he faces the challenge of finding himself a role in the British frontline.  Little does he know that something completely new to the world is going to change the path of his life.

The series follows the group of friends across the years of 1916-1917.  During this time the British, and Allied, forces seek to break the deadlock of the trenches.  Into this conflict, the Allies unleash the new weapon of the undead, creatures that seek to feed upon the living.  Marsh, and his friends, accidentally find themselves in the unique position of being tasked to lead one of these experimental units.

Download your copy of this first part of this story now.  Free in online bookstores!

Midsummer in Auschwitz

The title of this blog-post, ‘Midsummer in Auschwitz’, certainly sounds like the title of an interesting story.  Yet it would be a story that I do not think I could write, or do any justice to if I did.

A week and a half ago, on Wednesday, as our plane chased the midsummer sunset over Poland and Germany, one of the trip organisers spoke to us over the aircraft tannoy.  Until that point I had not realised it was midsummer’s day and I have certainly borrowed the title from what he said to us.  I had, however, been keenly aware that the 28oC that we had experienced during our tour was significantly cooler than the 36oC heat of a humid London.  It had also been very clear to me that my generic understanding of Auschwitz was incorrect.  The cold, sub-zero winter temperatures that are the norm in that part of Poland, are only a feature of the winter months.  Southern Poland basks in the sun just like anywhere else.

Lessons from Auschwitz

Having been keenly aware of the Holocaust since a very young age, initially through my father’s collection of ‘Purnell’s History of the Second World War‘, Auschwitz has always been a place I have been ambivalent about visiting.  I have always been nervous about visiting a scene of one of the many massacres that took place across Europe, especially one that is so high in the public consciousness.  Even while a student, I kept at a discrete distance from Holocaust Studies, aware of the great historians who were arguing about the interpretation of sources and the events while fighting off a rising tide of denial.  Yet, I have always wanted to see these places for myself, to make them as real as one can after so many decades.

The opportunity to visit Auschwitz came up when I recently changed schools.  Over the years I have worked with the Lessons From Auschwitz project to send pupils and teachers to witness the museum on the site of the former death and concentration camp.  This year I finally got the opportunity to go.  After a weekend development seminar, at which a Holocaust survivor spoke, I was ready to go, although wary of how the trip may affect me.

Arriving in Poland

After an extremely early start, the flight descended over Poland, the first time I had seen the country.  Already a glorious day, everything glistened in the sunshine, the fields green and fertile.  One of the first things to strike me, as we made our approach to the airfield, were the small strips of farmland dominating the landscape, totally unlike the post-enclosure fields of agricultural Britain.

The first stop on the tour was to the cross-roads town of Oświęcim, a reasonable coach journey from the airport.  Having returned to it’s original name, this town deserves to be known for much more than the crimes committed under it’s Germanic name.  With many old buildings and a glorious town square, the centre of the town is picturesque.  As a major meeting point on old trade routes and the railways, it has a rich history as a meeting place.  Prior to the events of the Second World War, it was also relatively well integrated, and people of all faiths and nationalities lived alongside each other.  Of course, the events that took place on the outskirts of the town, underlined by the destruction of the synagogue, led to the end of that integration.  Also much overlooked by those outside of Poland is the extreme suffering of the Poles during the war.

Auschwitz I

The visit to Oświęcim was truly a whistle-stop one.  Before long we were back on the coaches for the short trip to Auschwitz I, the old army barracks.  As it came into sight, I was surprised by how close it was to the town, barracks building that I had seen in countless documentaries were clearly visible from the road.  Hotels and commercial buildings around the entrance to the camp built up to support the vast numbers of people who make a pilgrimage to the museum every year.  Make no mistake, this complex is now a museum, a place to learn and reflect, no longer a place of torment and death.

Between the security fences in Auschwitz I

During our guided tour, the exhibits and the expert knowledge of the guide proved thought-provoking.  On more than one occasion I could feel the hairs on my arm stand on end.  This was no tour of mass slaughter, but rather a reflection on the personal experience.  Everywhere there was evidence of individuals, identified by name, date of birth and ultimate fate.  The controversial exhibit of human hair, was one such moment when I dwelt upon the end of a specific individual.

The firing squad wall in Auschwitz I. More than 5,500 prisoners were executed here.

In various places, I could see the locations of the different survivor accounts I was familiar with.  The tour of the barracks rooms was highly organised.  For various reasons it covers the whole history of the camps at Auschwitz, not just the story of the events that took place in those rooms or even Auschwitz I.  It is clearly a museum within the maintained shell of the old Polish barracks, the barracks that was converted into the first part of vast Auschwitz-Birkenau complex.  The museum faces the challenge of telling the story to multiple nationalities, of varying ages, and significantly varying interest.  Imagine living in a country where Holocaust Studies is a significant and compulsory part of the school curriculum and that you are required to visit the camp as part of your education.  You may end up more liberal in your lifetime views, but not every teenager can cope with being told to go on school trips and visit places relating to subjects that you have already been heavily-exposed too.  Having said that, all the teenagers I saw were respectful.  The museum also has the challenge of how to maintain the original fabric of the site while using replicas in an appropriate and sensitive fashion.  The famous sign above the gated entrance to this camp is one such example, a replica now standing following the theft and recovery of the original.  Another place where this dilemma was noticeable was the gallows where the former camp commander Rudolf Hoess was executed in 1947.

The bareness of the improvised gas chamber and crematorium, stood in stark contrast to the various exhibits in the barracks building.  This is a building that is familiar to anyone who has watched Laurence Rees’ ‘Auschwitz – The Nazis and the Final Solution’ and ‘The Nazis – A Warning from History’, both made by the BBC.  It is also the only intact gas chamber at the Auschwitz-Birkenau site, the others destroyed either by a prisoner uprising or the retreating Nazis.  The silence in the building was almost total, with our guide talking to us over the radio headphones.  I doubt I was capable of any rational conversation at this time.

Birkenau

The remainder of the day was spent at the Birkenau camp.  With a mixture of restored and replica buildings, wrecked buildings and the destroyed gas chambers, this was a different experience.  Auschwitz I was based around the experience of the individual, Birkenau was based around sheer scale even though there were careful exhibits to remind us about the individual scale.

The entrance to Birkenau, looking from the coach park.  The camp stretches into the trees in the background.

The camp was vast.  From the famous rail entrance to the camp, the wire fences stretched into the distance, the back of the camp also out of view in the distant tree-line.  Near the entrance are a series of brick prisoner barracks in various stages of preservation.  There were also several wooden barracks in various stages of reconstructions, the wood falling prey to the high water-table over the years and having to be replaced.  Even the telegraph poles had been removed from contact with the damp ground, now anchored to concrete posts.  The majority of the concentration camp was in ruins, pairs of chimneys marking the locations of the many barracks the prisoners were held in.  With so many buildings in skeletal form, it is easier to see the vast scale of the camp.  While the decision to maintain, and recreate, a small number of buildings was more than adequate to communicate the horror of the place.  Among the recreated buildings was a toilet block, while the sleeping quarters next door, clearly illustrated the appalling conditions the inmates were forced to live in.  It was clear that the intention was for the prisoners to die over time.

Facing the entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau from inside the camp.  Visible to the left, before the final rail siding, is the sorting ramp.  This was where newly arrived prisoners were selected for immediate extermination.

The rail sidings through the centre of the camp were capable of taking long trains before sorting individuals for instant gassing.  Approximately 5,000 people could be delivered by each train.  There are an immense number of accounts that recall what happened here.  To be stood in a location, that is the centre of such historical documentation, leads to many mixed emotions.  As an Englishman, who has visited many of the historically important parts of Britain, this visit was on a completely different level to visits I have made to historical sites before.  While there have been great crimes in the history of Britain, there is no one site that can compare to this.  Of the many sites of extermination in Eastern Europe, few are remembered on the scale of Auschwitz.

Entrance to one of the gas chamber changing rooms.  The crematorium can be seen at the top of the photo.  Brick prison barracks are in the background.  This part of the complex was wrecked by the retreating Nazis.

The wrecked gas chambers and crematorium were vast, preserved in their destroyed state, ponds besides them that had been used to store ashes.  One building had been destroyed by the retreating Nazis, the other by revolting Sonderkommandos.  As you stand by these buildings, the mathematics of the camp cannot be ignored.  Hundreds of thousands of individuals were ‘processed’ through these buildings.  The photographic evidence from the time is sparse.  While the Nazis were thorough in their photographic documentation of the camp, only photographs taken covertly by the Sonderkommandos, show the buildings in use.  However, the eyewitness testimony and the human remains, are the strongest evidence.

As I walked around Birkenau, I struggled to take in the scale, too vast in numbers of deaths.  As a museum, the former concentration and death camp is clean, grassed, empty, almost desolate despite the frequent evidence of wildlife.  Yet places were recognisable from the photos that exist, but are today transformed by peace.

Candles lit during the remembrance service at the end of the trip.

Flying home

The rest of the trip passed in a blur of tiredness.  As we flew into the sunset, I began to reflect.  I have continued to reflect in the days since the trip.  Intolerance and prejudice must be challenged quickly and effectively.  Auschwitz is a warning of what can occur when people do not stand up for each other, an extreme warning of what can happen in an enlightened modern society.  However, it should be remembered that intolerance and prejudice comes from humans-beings.  The challenge is to stand firmly against their views, while remembering that they too are human.

While the scale and nature of persecution against the Jews, by the Nazis and their supporters, was unprecedented in human history, other groups suffered immensely.  There is a challenge today to remember the many other victims of the Nazi persecutions, without disregarding the suffering of the Jews.  Among these were Germans of all religions, sexualities and political viewpoints; Poles; Russians; Ukrainians; Romani; and the disabled.

There is also the challenge of remembering that Auschwitz was the exception, not the rule.  Millions were murdered by Einsatzgruppen firing squads; camps such as Treblinka were brutally effective in both scale and lack of survivors.  Locally initiated pogroms and the ghetto system also led to vast amounts of suffering and deaths.  Much of Nazi-occupied Europe was subject to the persecutions and genocides; and while many people participated, many also resisted.

Perhaps the most challenging reflection came from one person on the trip, who was concerned by the lack of a vigorous challenge to anti-Semitism, by one of the main British political parties.  That political party has been accused, by some of being institutionally anti-Semitic.  In the last week, some media sources have even suggested that this party is experiencing a cult of personality.  Contrasted to this is a policy of one of the other major political parties in Britain that has led to thousands of disabled people dying after they have been declared as ‘fit to work‘ and had their benefits cut.  Not that such a policy directly caused their deaths, but the stress of the review process will not have helped their health.  Nor is it fair to target someone for austerity measures who clearly has a terminal condition.  Yet, neither situation is anywhere near the scale of what happened in the 1930s and 1940s, but there is prejudice and discrimination going on.  In Britain today, there is also the spectre of Islamophobia and the question of how to deal with Brexit, while not tolerating racism.

How does one person fix these things?  They do not.  They make a stand for what is right and encourage those around them to do so to.  Whatever the ‘-ism’ or ‘-phobia’, it must be challenged and not allowed to flourish, while remembering that the people who hold these ideas are human.

Flash Fiction – The End Of A Long Journey

Flash Fiction Challenge

For a long time I’ve been wanting to write some flash fiction.  Several years ago I stumbled across the weekly flash fiction challenges Chuck Wendig, publishes on his blog.  I’ve attempted a couple, but none have ever been completed until now.  Below is my attempt at ‘The End Of A Long Journey’.  The brief was quite simple in that it was 1,500 words on the end of a long journey.  The hardest part was to show a beginning, middle and end.  I think I just about achieved this, although it’s probably too brief an episode.

I had initially planned to write a sci-fi story, and had an idea I played with for a few hours.  However, I could not get a certain place of pilgrimage out of my mind, as shown in the photo.  Pleasingly the story comes in at 1502 words.

The End Of A Long Journey

The pilgrim fell to his knees, landing awkwardly on the first step.  The pain was brief and nothing like the aches and pains that hounded him in his old age.  Before him, the remaining seven stone steps rose towards the shrine, a final challenge at the end of his long journey, a challenge he would savour, the final act of his penitence.

He took a deep breath, his staff in his right hand, the left clasping a rosary.  He lifted himself to the second stone step.  As he did so, he noticed that each stone was worn away by the passage of kneeling, and standing pilgrims, such as himself.

The journey had started years before.  He had left his homeland in search of glory, to fight in the great crusade against the Ottomans, the Crusade of Nicopolis.  The crusade had failed disastrously, and in the chaos of the final battle, he was one of the few that had successfully slipped away.  Travelling first to the Holy city of Jerusalem, he had determined to visit the places that his patron saint had been intending to visit.

The Holy City had been hot and dusty, the memory of it sustaining him on his long return journey across Europe.  The hospitality of the Saracens had, at first, surprised him.  As a pilgrim he had frequently lived off the charity of others and the followers of Muhammad were just as generous, if not more so, than the Christians.  One young man had explained to him the practice of zakāt, and how this would be shared with the poor, the needy and travellers.  The practice had struck him as far more practical than the tithing practiced in the western Christian world.  There were many other things that had impressed him about the Saracens and the they way they lived their lives.

He had visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, overwhelmed by visiting a place that the Lord had been.  The services, in Latin, were familiar and comforting, despite his being in a foreign land.  While he had considered visiting other places in the Holy Land, he knew his true calling was to visit the holy places his patron saint had been planning to visit, Jerusalem being the final of these.  The journey would be long and hard, but would bring him home and to the place that the saint had left this earthly life.

The third step was a challenge.  An ache spread up his back, following the line of an old wound.  He lifted his right leg, grimacing as the ache became a sharper pain, yet he carefully lowered his knee to the worn stone.  The left leg was much easier.  He paused, allowing the worst of the pain to pass, ignoring the other pilgrims making their own journeys up the steps.

His mind went back to his youth.  His parents and siblings had died horribly, coughing and in fever, black swellings erupting on their bodies.  He remembered his mother dead in the corner of a room.  It had been a terrifying time, with many people claiming that the pestilence was a punishment from God.  Others had blamed strangers.  He had even taken part in a revenge attack against some strangers who had been accused of brining the pestilence into the town.

Yet, those dark days had not taken him and cheating death had soon become something of a habit.  For several years after the death of his family, he had lived on his wits, sometimes alone, sometimes not.  He had accepted charitable handouts from the monastery, at other times stealing from those better off than him, frequently poaching.  His skills with the later were what had brought him to the attention of the lord of the manor.  Caught for poaching, he should have been severely punished, probably executed.  Instead, he had been seen and admired, for his use of a stolen bow.  That admiration had led to his eventual adoption by the childless lord, who had seen some reflection of himself in the resilient youth.

He grinned at the memory of that bow, as he crawled onto the fifth step.  He had barely noticed the fourth step during his recollections.  That bow had seemed so powerful at the time.  He had been inordinately proud of it when he had stolen it.  He was now half way to his final goal, buoyed up the memory, his long journey almost at an end.

Ah yes, he thought.  The journey to Canterbury had been long and hard.  Jerusalem had been the final place that his patron saint had been planning to visit, Canterbury had been the second.  He knew the immense distance between the two cities, for most of his journey to Jerusalem, at least the part that had led to Nicopolis, had been in the brave company of fellow warriors.  The journey from Jerusalem to Canterbury was immense, at times lonely, at times not, often dangerous, but every step, a step of contrition.  To visit the shrine of Saint Thomas of Canterbury had been truly worth the journey.  In the elegance of the shrine, in the immensity of the huge cathedral, he had. for the first time, begun to feel a peace.  As he had travelled the leagues, he had felt the torment of his sins increasing upon his soul, yet at the shrine, Saint Thomas had seen fit to intercede with a peace beyond describing.

The sixth step, was so heavily worn, in the centre, by the pilgrims feet; the sixth step before the shrine of St William of Perth.  What a man, what an example.  As the pilgrim’s patron saint, the patron saint of adopted children, St William was a shining example of Christianity.  That was why he was on this pilgrimage, to obtain the intercession of St William.  For the saint had adopted a child, trained him into the saint’s trade of baker.  St William had been wise and generous, giving a tenth of everything he baked to the poor.

As a knight, the adopted son of a knight, the pilgrim had found it hard to emulate the saint in this respect, but he had tried.  There had been many times when he had given alms, often more than was needed.  He had always paid his tithe to the Church, although there were times when he knew he had been less than honest about the amount due.  He had tried to attend Mass every day, frequently succeeding, inspired by the piety of St William.  He knew, in his heart, that his intentions had almost always been good, and when he failed, well this penitence would address that.

The seventh step.  His knees throbbed with pain.  He did not know how long he had been climbing the steps.  Many other pilgrims had overtaken him.  He grasped tight his clamshell pilgrims badge, the symbol of St William.  The final step would not defeat him, the once proud knight.

As mounted the final step of this great challenge, he thought of the great parallel between the saint and himself, the true reason for his pilgrimage.  St William had been on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, by way of Canterbury and Rochester.  Yet, his adopted son Cockermay Doucri, had attacked him, a great blow striking William’s head, before the traitorous charge had cut his throat.  The pilgrim had likewise failed his adoptive father, neglecting to protect him in the great battle at Nicopolis.  He had watched as a lance pieced the side of his guardian, seeing the attack coming, yet fearful of the consequences to himself.  So he had not acted, certain in the knowledge that he would inherit.  He had forgotten his debt to his guardian, he had not acted.  He could have interposed himself between the attacker and his guardian; he could have struck the assailant from his horse, he had not acted.  He had merely shouted a warning; itself inadequate over the noise of the mass of chargers.  It was as if he, himself, had cut his father’s throat.

The pilgrim let out a sigh, one hand on the archway, the other on his staff as he raised himself atop the pilgrims’ stairs, taking in the Norman architecture of the Cathedral Church of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary.  One final act remained at the end of his long journey.  He would light a candle and pray for the intercession of Saint William.  For he was penitential, he knew his sins, the whole pilgrimage had been an act of contrition, for he knew Saint William would intercede if he truly repented.  For had Saint William not already interceded in a far more miraculous situation, curing the madness of the woman who had found his corpse?  Had not this miracle been the one that had convinced the monks of Rochester to William’s martyrdom and saintly presence in the throne-room of the Lord?

His hands shook as he lit the candle, it was the end of a long journey.  His eyes closed.