68 Days Later

If you’re not an essential worker, you will have spent the last 8 to 10 weeks locked down in one form or another. Everyone is saying what an odd experience this has been, with time slowing to a crawl in March, then April vanishing in a flash. May is dragging as we get the tantalizing glimpse of freedom ahead. It’s not over until it’s over and the story of the virus may have many cruel twists ahead, but lockdown has been an experience never to be forgotten.

Blue skies. Many days in April were almost cloudless, with no contrails. I acquired a tan…in Yorkshire in April!

Where did all the traffic go? The A631 was quiet as a country lane and I couldn’t hear the M1 and M18 anymore.

The daily walk. I live in a hilltop village not so far from the urban fringe and a challenge has been to find different places to enjoy exercise without bumping into crowds of people with the same idea.

Losing track of time. I stopped wearing my watch on March 16th. I work from home, I don’t watch live TV, I don’t take a daily newspaper. I re-calibrated my life on Sundays when I collected the Sunday Times and made sure I cooked a proper dinner.

Which brings me to cooking, something we all occupied our minds with. It had to be planned well in advance so all the ingredients were in place, as I only shopped every 10 days or so. A real morale booster…

…as was the ‘briefing beer’. I religiously sat down just before 5pm and listened to the government briefings (and the latest grimness) treating myself to a gluten free beer or a cider or one of my daily ration of two cans of Pepsi Max. As time went on I tended to sit down about 5.15 and watch it on catch up so I could hear the latest science but fast-forward through the political waffle.

Chocolate without guilt. Ok, not without calories. I bought multipacks, disposed of the outer wrappings immediately then stashed the 10-day supply in the fridge. It seldom lasted 10 days…

Telly without guilt, although I watched far less than I expected. I managed the whole Lord of the Rings/Hobbit series, the entire Harry Potter cycle but no more telly than normal. My new Playstation went almost unplayed.

Walking down the centre of the road. I took cheerful pleasure in doing this in later March and April before people rediscovered their cars. It was useful for avoiding dog-walkers too.

Gardening. I’m not much of a gardener but in the last pre-lockdown days I stocked up on plants, compost and gravel and re-engineered my front garden. The fact we’ve had about 2 days of rain since lockdown began did not make my job easier, and nor did my aged hose springing a leak with all the shops shut.

Wildlife. I’ve watched birds enjoying my new birdbath. I’ve waged a war of wits against fat pigeons who were raiding the seed feeders meant for garden birds. In the early morning and around sunset I’ve enjoyed birdsong in the woods.

The lockdown locks. As the curls multiply, the style clock ticks back to 1980. Maybe I’ll keep the look.

Freedom! I finally get to stretch my wheels, my legs and my lungs. Hoping this will soon be over, something to look back on and laugh about. Yes we laugh at adversity, and we downplay our fears because we have hope for tomorrow. We will survive, and we will prosper and we will meet our friends again.

Keeping Occupied

This week should have seen the publication of my latest book, ‘Occupation to Liberation’. It would have been launched at the Guernsey Literary Festival, now sadly cancelled, and the launch was one of the 75 events to celebrate 75 years of freedom organised by Visit Guernsey. Although the UK is celebrating VE day this week on May 8th, Guernsey celebrates Liberation Day every year on May 9th as it continues to have special meaning in the islands. The end of the Second World War meant the end of five years of German occupation.

The Channel Islands were the only parts of Britain captured by Axis forces in the war, a novel fact that continues to fascinate. The Occupation was only a tiny part of the vast global struggle, yet has spawned a huge literary output of diaries, reminiscences, histories and fiction plus TV series and movies. I’m not an ‘Occupation expert’ but wanted to write an accessible book for the general reader which showcased the collections of Guernsey Museum.

One of the lines I wrote was that the big enemy was boredom, and another feature of the Occupation was an obsession with food. Sitting in virus lockdown I have begun to empathise with both attitudes. Normal civilian life was heavily constrained by curfews, restrictions on travel and closure of beaches and areas where the Germans had laid mines or built defences. Many businesses collapsed and people found what work they could for what money they could earn. Islanders were cut off from the rest of the world for five years, with only an occasional Red Cross message permitted to friends and relations off the island. News other than Nazi propaganda came from the BBC, which from 1942 could only be heard on hidden radio sets in defiance of regulations. There were no new books, the cinema soon ran out of English language films but there a great boom in amateur dramatics, arts and crafts as a way of keeping busy.

Almost everything was in short supply, so people had to ‘make do and mend’. Children played with home-made toys and wore hand-me-down clothes, often bartered for other essential items. Food ran short, and the variety of what was available challenged the ingenuity of the women who did the cooking.

Even the German soldiers experienced these twin privations of boredom and hunger. No battles were fought, and indeed as the war dragged on and hope of victory dwindled they dubbed themselves ‘The Canada Division’ knowing they would end up in Prisoner of War camps. Once D-Day began the liberation of France they too were cut off from home, knowing their families were enduring Allied bombing and fearing the inexorable advance of the Red Army. Bored soldiers turned in some cases to drink, the most depressed even committed suicide, but others applied their creativity to art. Paintings, photographs and carvings by soldiers now feature in the island’s Occupation museums and decorate some of the surviving bunkers. Soldiers too suffered increasing hardship as food supplies were cut off once the Allies controlled the French shores.

1945 was the year of hope. During the winter, the Red Cross ship SS Vega saved the civilians from starvation by delivering food parcels, which allowed the troops to eke out what other supplies remained. For all the puffed-up Nazi nonsense about ‘fighting to the last bullet’ the German garrison did no such thing. The war ended on May 8th to the relief of the civilians and, as far as we can tell, many of the ordinary soldiers. Posturing by the Nazi commander delayed matters, but on May 9th British troops stepped ashore and Guernsey was free once more.

Although the majority of the British population is today locked down in a peculiar curfew, we are not under foreign occupation. We are free to listen to the BBC whenever we like and follow the progress of our own peculiar ‘war’. There is fear on the streets and we have the constant drip of grim news and that daily toll of lives lost, but for all the wartime analogies we are not being bombed or shot at. We do not fear the knock on the door, and if we are stopped in the street by a police officer asking our business we know they only have our best interests at heart. We are fortunate to have plenty to eat – too much in my case – even though standing in line outside the supermarket recalls photographs of the wartime ration queues.

The VE Day bank holiday and Guernsey’s 75th Liberation Day will be curious affairs, with virtual celebrations and ‘street parties’ held in discrete units from garden to garden, but nostalgia will be rife. My generation is fortunate never to have fought a world war. In our current crisis I’m not being called on to charge up a beach under fire or pilot a plane through angry skies, but simply stay at home and watch streamed movies. Rather like in 1945 though, those of us who are hunkered down are relying on professionals to win the fight in the front line and are crossing fingers that our leaders are doing the right things. Perhaps this will be our finest hour?

Occupation to Liberation: Guernsey, Sark and Alderney 1940-1945 will be published by Guernsey Museums & Galleries later this year. All images in this article are taken from the book and are courtesy Guernsey Museums & Galleries.

The Festival that Nearly Was

The Alderney Literary Festival 2020 was due to have taken place on the third weekend of March, but with just one week to go was cancelled due to the looming coronavirus crisis. I was already out there and brushing up for my panels when the news came that disappointed us all.

Rory Clements was one of the writers I was due to introduce, his talk being entitled Hitler’s Secret: Reimagined histories. I was keen to meet him as I’m working on a 1930s thriller in a similar arena to his Tom Wilde series. There are now four novels about the Cambridge Don, an American historian specialising in the Elizabethan spy network. It’s amusing to observe that Clements is getting double value from the research he did for his John Shakespear series set in Elizabethan England, of which a TV series is in development. I had pleasure to see him presented with the CWA Historical Dagger in London in 2018 for Nucleus and last year I was able to read a pre-publication proof of the fourth Tom Wilde thriller Hitler’s Secret which has now been published by Head of Zeus.

The Alderney festival mixes historical fiction with non-fiction, and the Sunday morning slot should have seen Roger Moorhouse talking about Poland’s September Campaign of 1939: the Forgotten campaign of WW2. Moorhouse has published a number of books on modern German history, including the intriguingly titled Killing Hitler about the various plots to kill the Fuhrer. Moorhouse’s most recent publication, First to Fight: The Polish War 1939 was named among books of the year for 2019 by BBC History Magazine and The Daily Telegraph, and shortlisted for the Duke of Wellington Medal for Military History 2020. So much has been written about WW2, but the Polish campaign is most often passed over in the introductory sections of histories keen to get onto the Fall of France, so it was a talk I regret having missed.

I know nothing about the history of the Philippines, so was amused to be invited to introduce Miguel Angel Lopez de Asuncion speaking about The last of the Philippines: myth & reality of the siege of Baler. Cue some very rapid reading-up on the internet! Miguel is a historian who has concentrated for 20 years on the ‘last of the Philippines’, the Spanish heroes of the siege of Baler in 1898. He was historical advisor on the 2016 film 1898; Los Ultimos des Filipinos which is the latest cinematic treatment of the story and now available on Netflix. The siege of Baler was a ‘last stand’ epic akin to the much more famous Alamo; fifty Spanish troops holding out in a church for 337 days whilst surrounded by Filipino rebels. I read just enough to effect my introduction, but not enough to spoil the ending, so I’m still intrigued by what we might have heard.

My fourth event was to have been a panel together with Miguel, Rory Clements, and Antonia Senior. Antonia is a journalist with a trio of standalone historical novels under her belt. The latest is The Tyrant’s Shadow (2017) published by Corvus and set in the aftermath of the English Civil War. We were to have discussed The Past is a Foreign Country; challenging historical perspectives. Historical interpretation is not static, and with changing cultural, social, and political influences, historians constantly revisit the past. A talk that might have been, and still might be one day. It is to be hoped that as the world transitions towards the ‘new normal’ the Alderney Literary Festival will return.

Sixty Days in a Strange World

There will be plenty of retrospective prophets this year. A few scientists will be revealed to have had perceptive papers published in obscure journals just before C-19 hit, but a larger number who predicted other crises will keep quiet. Writers of certain dystopian novels, TV series and movies will be lauded as prescient, although those who scripted meteorite impact or robot takeover stories will have to wait a little longer. ‘I told you so’ pundits of all shades are already pointing to this report or that course of action which if handled differently would have changed everything (maybe).

With this in mind, I looked back at my own awareness over 60 days of the mounting crisis. I’ve kept a daily diary since I was 14 and for the last decade have accumulated a store of emails, messages and social media posts which amount to a second ‘unofficial’ diary.

In mid-January I took a holiday in Sri Lanka. It was a spur-of-the moment decision and if I’d faffed around and chosen a later date I would never have gone or worse would have been marooned awaiting rescue. My diary of 24 January refers to the “new panic about Coronovirus in Wuhan”. Three days later I was nervous standing for three hours on a packed train squashed between Chinese tourists wearing masks.

In mid-holiday I caught a conventional cold that proved no more than antisocial but would not make me popular on my returning planes. On the way back at the start of February I was wary of fellow passengers at Bandaranike, Doha and Manchester airports, making use of my little travel-size hand sanitizer and avoiding groups.

My habit of snacking constantly on flights had to stop; the way the bat-meets-pig Chinese virus spreads in the opening sequence of the 2011 movie Contagion was strong in my mind. Contagion would become one of the most-downloaded films of 2020.

At the time of the SARS outbreak in 2005 I’d written pandemic plans for a merchant bank, and I revisited this by writing one for the Museum I managed from 2006. I hoped my successors were dusting those plans off and finding them adequate.

As a novelist and a scientist of sorts I was watching developments with detachment. The 1918-19 Spanish Flu reared its head in Glint of Light on Broken Glass and the research came in handy for a museum display I mounted on the end of the Great War, so I was alert to the developing story.

On February 8th I was writing as if C-19 was something I’d ‘escaped’ by getting back to the UK. In England the news was all about the floods; storm Chiara and her accomplices. As late as 26th February the Opposition were still laying into the Prime Minister for not paddling around flooded villages and not convening a COBRA meeting to deal with it. No! I yelled at the telly; convene COBRA to discuss the virus! Eerily the TV series COBRA was showing, in which an embattled Prime Minister deals with social breakdown –­ in that case after a solar flare.

For my own ‘disaster planning’ I decided not to book my next holiday, which would have been June; on Feb 9th I noted “This virus could lead to air travel shutting down, travel companies going bust etc”.

I was due to chair a session at the Guernsey Literary Festival in May and launch my new book Occupation to Liberation. Crimefest in June was also something to look forward to, but I held off booking hotels or trains. I warned friends to be prepared for cancellation of a whole slew of events, but felt rather like a Jonah for doing so.

On February 25th I re-watched Contagion as pandemic was fast becoming a topic of conversation. I invited my folks around, and I must admit that as they are in that 70+ category this was partly to bring them into the zone of pandemic planning. “Stop touching your face, Jerry!” Kate Winslett chides. I posted about the film on Facebook and engaged robustly with people who were downplaying the virus or using selective facts to score cheap points against the government. On Friday 27th I went out for a pub meal and for the first time passed around hand sanitizer.

My diary from the 2nd March begins to note the successive real-time crises we are all familiar with, and that day I pasted a semi-jokey “Keep Calm and Wash Your Hands” notice on Facebook. There was plenty of black humour around. On the 8th March we enjoyed what could prove to be the last big family supper for a long time.

I was fully booked to take part in the Alderney Literary Festival in late March, but changed flights to go out a week earlier to tidy up some of my archaeological commitments. This was the time of indecision in the UK and all transport was still running, but if hadn’t made the change, I would not have got away at all. I flew out to Guernsey on the 11th, then on to Alderney. This was the day WHO at last declared C-19 to be a pandemic.

On Friday 13th the Festival was cancelled with just a week to go, and my heart went out to my friends who had put so much effort into organising it. Italy had just locked down; it was only a matter of time before the UK did the same and the Channel Islands would surely close their ports in the hope of keeping the bugs out. Spending two weeks away from home looked increasingly unwise, so I cut short my trip, returning on the 15th wearing gloves all the way. As I’d travelled on two planes, two trains and passed through three airports, I decided to avoid all physical interaction with my family for five days after returning and turned down a meet-up with three old friends which was disappointing.

Many, if not most, people were still not taking this very seriously and I was still seeing Facebook posts from some setting off on holiday. Every event I had on my calendar was cancelled over the next few days, even Guernsey’s landmark 75th Liberation Day. The excavation in Alderney I planned for May would not be happening and that scheduled for August looked in doubt. Friends became gloomy as all our plans for the spring and summer fell away.

Expecting to be away for two weeks I’d emptied the fridge, so did a ‘big shop’ on my return wearing gloves and bought sufficient to see me through two weeks of self-isolation in case I’d picked up the bug. ‘Panic buying’ was becoming fashionable but shelves were still full. I urged friends and family to close down their social life and plan for longer lockdowns. Even this late it was the ‘self-isolating’ and disruption of my social diary that I thought would be the biggest inconvenience of this crisis. As a writer I work from home anyway, I was never going to be ‘furloughed’ and I no longer have small children to worry about. I bunged in a quick order to Amazon for a Playstation to stave off potential boredom, and filled the Jeep at the garden centre on the 20th to give myself a few weeks of garden projects.

By the time I went to the builder’s merchants on the 22nd, apologising for wearing a scarf like a bandit, most people were keeping a wary distance apart but I could have slapped the woman who literally pushed past me in the door. The atmosphere in the Co-Op was edgy and grabbing the first bunch of tulips I saw seemed positively daring. On Mother’s Day I placed the bunch outside a closed door and made four paces back feeling vaguely ridiculous. It was all increasingly surreal, as if I was acting out a scene in a dystopian film or was slavishly following those decade-old pandemic plans I’d written. Suddenly on the 23rd March we had the bombshell of lockdown, not quite two months since that first marginal note I made in January. In sixty days, the world had changed.

The Elephant in the Shed

There’s an elephant in the room, but there is also one out in the garden and another in the shed. In fact I’m thinking of buying the field next door to accommodate more elephants. Very few people will notice them, because these are elephants we really don’t want to see, and want to tame even less.

The elephant is human population growth.

This spring I went to Cambodia, which suffered the most horrific conflict during the 1980s which killed up to a third of the population of six to seven million. A few decades later the figure has bounced up to 15 million. Tour guides proudly told us of the burgeoning industrialisation of an economy once almost entirely based on agriculture. Expecting to see the infamous jungle of ‘Nam movies, I mainly saw fields, fruit groves and rice paddies. Family size is falling with industrialisation, but the transition was stark. Farmers are cutting back the forest to create more land and I saw new roads leading to cleared wasteland and raised platforms designated for ‘new cities’ in flood-prone areas.

Moving on to Vietnam, the jungle was mainly absent too. Paddies and farms stretched along the banks of the Mekong. At over 90 million, ‘Nam has 2.5 times the population it had at the start of what they call ‘The American War’ despite the widespread slaughter and economic destruction. Whilst Cambodia still has a more traditional feel, Vietnam is on the path to looking like everywhere else: skyscrapers, billboards, traffic junctions, shopping malls and take-aways. At each major junction in Saigon (as most locals still call it), a phalanx of motorbikes eight wide and ten deep awaits the changing of the lights. They set off in a roar, weaving between each other in a great shoal. My thought was; ‘Whatever happens when all these people get cars?’

The tourist sites were heaving. Used to the ‘busy’ days in Guernsey when we were lucky to get 3 or 400 people turning up at the Castle I was in a whole different world. Hordes poured into the semi-abandoned jungle-clad ruin of Ta Prohm. Some 15,000 per day go into the Angkor Wat complex,  mostly Chinese, Koreans and a few Australians. Most will have flown.

Racking up my air miles, knowing I’m doing more damage to the climate than those motorcyclists, I looked out of my airliner window in the small hours, down into the darkness of the ‘stans from a few miles up. Or it should have been darkness, based on how blank all the atlases of that region look. Instead there were city lights, glittering as orange jewels, scattered in all directions. The world felt scarily full at that moment.

I came back to the interminable Brexit debate, and we know ‘Leave’ was in large part fuelled by fears over immigration. Those fears were bumped up by the exodus from Syria and Libya and other war-torn regions. We might imagine these wars are about one religious sect fighting another because they wear the wrong colour hat on Fridays, but like most wars resources are the root cause. Land is in short supply, fertile land is even scarcer and fresh water is at a premium across great swathes of the world. Bloody squabbles erupt over oil, diamonds, copper and so forth. Fuel is running out and shortages are likely to spark even more conflicts. ‘Rare earth’ metals on which much modern technology such as my smartphone relies are becoming rarer.

Millions are now living on mountains, volcano slopes, in swamps, in deserts, below sea-level, on tiny islands, in arctic regions and where jungle used to be. These areas could not naturally sustain more than a handful of human bands, yet we are building cities. Who is surprised when these areas are devastated by wildfires/ cyclones/ floods/ famine/ drought? Humans are not supposed to live there.

Nobody knows what the ‘carrying capacity’ of the Earth is but at 7.7 billion people and rising we may find out the hard way. It certainly cannot sustain 7.7 billion Americans, and who is to deny all those people the standard of consumption the Americans enjoy?

Environmentalists for the most part don’t want to talk about population. It smacks of poor-shaming and lets the resource-guzzling West off the hook. The UN doesn’t want to talk about it either; why should the West have it so good and not everyone else? Government control of population smacks of authoritarianism; it offends liberals, libertarians and ultra-conservatives alike, whilst the left would rather blame capitalism for the world’s problems. Birth control of any form also offends numerous religious groups.

Last year the world hosted an extra 82 million people, that’s an additional 160,000 more per day. It’s more than died in the whole Second World War and it would take a pandemic on the scale of the Spanish Flu or Black Death to significantly knock it back. Most growth is in the poorer regions of the world already groaning under the weight of numbers and environmental degradation. Their cities are choking with pollution.

foffIt is not surprising millions want to move to Europe or America, and it is unsurprising that Europeans and people who have already made it to America don’t want their already overcrowded lands crowding even more. I saw a t-shirt on sale in South Dakota reading ‘Fuck off, We’re Full’. You can buy them on Amazon, car stickers too. Trump and his ilk use unpleasant language, but they articulate the fears of their electorate.

 

Migration is part of the human story, it has happened since the dawn of time. It has brought marriage and trade, the exchange of ideas and culture and it has brought prosperity to many. It has also brought war, exploitation, slavery, discrimination, disease, resource-raiding and extermination. Opposing migration is commonly decried as racist, a denial of human rights and a policy of the far right. Left-leaning Greens don’t have an anti-immigration/population control stance, yet population growth undermines efforts to consume less and preserve wild places. The net 270,000 people coming into the UK in 2018 is equivalent to a new city with the footprint of Newcastle, and even if they are poor when they arrive we can’t ban them from one day owning Range Rovers, flying to Florida or eating beef.

Across Europe we have seen the rise of ‘populist’ candidates with simplistic messages and ‘far right’ anti-immigration parties in a mood that smacks of the 1930s. A major problem is that Liberals and centre/right democrats have vacated the debate as too hot to handle. It is easier to attack the Alt-Right on the basis of their rhetoric than on the uncomfortable problems provoking it, so pragmatic discussion is almost non-existent.

No-Blade-Of-Grass-poster-468x330We are in very scary, apocalyptic movie territory; No Blade of Grass and Interstellar both play on the results of global crop failures. The crazy world of Mad Max fights over water and oil. As a teenager I was chilled by the overpopulated world of Soylent Green and J G Ballard’s Billenium.

History has shown us that people under environmental stress do not sit still and die. The Migration Period saw peoples from the east moving west in successive waves; Huns, Goths, Vandals, Franks and Saxons. Even the names of these groups still carry echoes of the violence that followed. Illegal immigrants by definition are breaking laws, and criminal gangs are exploiting desperate people from the south prepared to risk their lives for a new home in the north.

The displacement of five million people from Syria is a new factor destabilising the European order, fuelling Brexit, which and in turn threatens the break-up of the United Kingdom. What if 50 million desperate people were on the move? If the climate change Cassandras are even close to being right, a billion could be displaced by rising seas and expanding deserts. No country is going to want them, but who is going to stop them? Unless rational people start to address the difficult issues, irrational people will be left to take the initiative.

We’re going to need a bigger shed.

 

Lessons from a Litfest

Another year, another Guernsey Literary Festival. Unlike all the other festivals I go to, this event is more of a smorgasbord; a feast to suit many different tastes. Rather than bingeing on the whole, people I have met are picking at two or three choice morsels. In this way the festival achieves a broad ‘hit’ across the population rather than going for a sharply targeted deep engagement such as (say) Alderney’s historical themed festival or Crimefest Bristol where I’m bound next week. It is a markedly different strategy and local engagement is extensive. There were 60 or so authors and a variety of big names, and I donated a copy of Glint of Light on Broken Glass to each of the goody bags to make them welcome to Guernsey.

WP_20190503_15_32_51_ProThe opening party was fun, only an hour, but chance to hear from a quartet of speakers and mingle with many like-minded friends on the island. On the Friday I was asked to introduce Dr Matthias Strohn (who was quicker to smile than I was when the camera was produced!) speaking at the blow-up Festival Hub in the Market Square. I’d met him at the Alderney festival two years ago and his subject this time was the end of the Great War. As a German historian and reserve army officer who advises the British Army and lectures at Sandhurst, Matthias offered some unique insights. Most telling was how ‘Britain centric’ our view of that war is. The Germans on the other hand were far more concerned with the Russian threat to the east and the French to the west, until the final year of the war at least. He explained how the German view that their army had not lost the war came about via the observation that (1) Germany fought the war because it was surrounded by enemies (2) none of those enemies had any soldiers on German soil at the conclusion of the fighting. The scene was set for ’round 2′.

I was asked initially whether I would moderate a talk by crime writer Mark Billingham, but having seen Mark in action I knew he needed no moderation – he was once a stand-up comedian. In the event he was paired with Erin Kelly, in the bigger venue of St James where even the audience just shy of 100 rattled a bit. Writers’ forums endlessly discuss whether it is best to plan a novel or fly by the seat of your pants (‘planners’ vs ‘pantsers’). Erin takes the same approach as I do, essentially writing a first draft composed of the main scenes of the book not necessarily in order. She then revisits in draft 2 to knit these together into a coherent story. She and Mark also discussed research and the tip was not to write it down as if swotting for an exam, but to use the points that stick. In this way the writer avoids ‘information dumping’, on the reasoning that all this researc =h must show somewhere.

WP_20190506_11_44_27_ProOn the Monday it was a change of venue again, to the spanking freshly refurbished Frossard Theatre at Candie to introduce Dr Gilly Carr. Gilly has worked with the Museum on a couple of occasions and co-created its current exhibition ‘On British Soil’ about Nazi persecution in the Channel Islands. Gilly has worked consistently for the past decade to change the narrative on the German Occupation, which had become in parts saccharine encouraged by cosy tales of wartime make-do-and-mend, partly ‘boys toys’ enthusiasm for the many fortifications and weapons left on the islands and partly by the euphoria of Liberation Day celebrated every year on May 9th. Gilly was talking about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as experienced by Channel Islanders who were persecuted by the Nazis. Victims deported to Nazi concentration camps belatedly got the opportunity to apply for compensation in the 1960s. Many were in no state to describe their suffering, and there was an added complication that PTSD was not recognised as a medical condition at that time. Claims could be made for wounds, diseases or disability, but how could people find recompense for damage that has not even been defined? More can be found on Gillys website https://www.frankfallaarchive.org/

So, I only managed four events, but I’m now warmed up and in the mood for Crimefest Bristol next week.

The Friendly Festival

It was my pleasure to attend the fourth Alderney Literary Festival this weekend, which incoming Chair Anthony Riches declared to be the ‘Friendly Festival’. It is small but perfectly formed, concentrating on historical fiction, non-fiction and biography. The audience is limited to 50 or so for each talk, so there was barely an empty seat throughout the weekend. People came and went, picking the talks that suited them and there was a programme of fringe events taking place about the island.

The intimacy of the venue at the Island Hall also meant that the dozen authors and the public mixed freely. There was no ‘Green Room’ for writers to be whisked away to by their agents or publicists. Refreshingly the talks were not simply a plugathon for the author’s new book, but plunged deep into discussions of historical fact and fiction, and indeed the point at which these transition into myth.

I wasn’t speaking this weekend, being principally a paying punter. I did however have the fun of introducing Professor Gary Sheffield’s talk on the end of the First World War, and brought away a copy of his book on Douglas Haig, from the Somme to Victory. The outcome of the Great War did much to shape the modern world, as did the outcome of the Second; the way we have built myths around that conflict were presented by Keith Lowe.

With Tony RichesIn what could have been the graveyard slot on Saturday evening, I also introduced Anthony Riches, energetic author of a dozen Roman epics which he writes at a dizzying rate. His talk on the evidence for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in the ancient world was thought-provoking and questions could have gone on all evening. Also taking no prisoners was outgoing Chair Simon Scarrow and his look at the so-called ‘End of History’, and where the deluge of data now available on the internet left the modern historian. Our own Liz Walton gave a talk on the Great War in the Channel Islands – I edited her book and was pleased to see it selling well on the bookstall.

Great fun, great conversations, great food washed down with a fair amount of wine. Local volunteers put a lot of work into this festival, which was supported by the Guernsey Arts Commission amongst others. With luck, and with the help of much-needed support from sponsors, Alderney Litfest will be back at the end of March 2019.

Follow the link for more on Alderney Literary Trust

And Now in German…

The Story of Guernsey is published in German this week. It is an introductory history of Guernsey profusely illustrated with images from Guernsey Museums’ collection, aimed at the general reader, visitors to the island and older children. The English and French editions of this book have already made it the Museum’s best-selling non-fiction work.

I’m pleased to see this out in German and have to thank my friend Tamara Scharf for translating it,  Elke Spangenberg for proofing the text and Christine Zürcher for the final proof-read. My schoolboy German wasn’t up to more than browsing through to check that the final copy looked okay. As usual Paul le Tissier laid out the book; always a complication when a paragraph in another language is not the same length as in English. The book is now on sale from outlets in Guernsey and via Guernsey Museum’s online Amazon shop.

Are we the good guys?

This month I visited the ‘War Remnants Museum’ in Saigon, formerly the ‘War Crimes Museum’ (and technically in Ho Chi Mihn City nowadays). The ‘war crimes’ of the USA, French and the South Vietnam regime are graphically illustrated with photographs and relics of torture, imprisonment, indiscriminate bombing, careless killings and trophy-collecting. It of course completely ignores the murders and atrocities committed by the NVA and VietCong. A superb retrospective of photographs by journalists killed in the conflict particularly shows the agony of the US war effort, whilst again the North Vietnamese photography was of cheerful NVA soldiers, sturdy peasants and so forth. Hardly balanced, and casting the USA particularly as the baddies. The Museum of the Revolution in Havanna does much the same, although with hilarious lack of credibility in places.

In my reading around the Vietnam War, one US politician looking at the corrupt and oppressive South Vietnamese regime wondered if the US was actually fighting on the right side. The reality of Cold War proxy wars was generally that the US would back unpleasant right-wing regimes with dismal human rights records, whilst the Russians, Chinese and Cubans would back insurgencies by ‘popular’ leftist groups equally comfortable with violence and murder. To the peasants and teenage soldiers forced to fight or flee it would be hard to tell who the good guys really were.

On holiday I read the classic ‘We Were Soldiers Once and Young’ by Moore and Galloway, concerning the first major bloodbath between US and NVA forces in 1965. Heart-wrenching stories of the NVA executing wounded Americans got no mention in the War Crimes museum, nor did their favored targeting of medics and medivac helicopters. I also watched the indifferent Brad Pitt movie ‘War Machine’ about Afghanistan, which drew its own parallels to the Vietnam War; the people we are fighting are the people we came here to defend.

It has been said that the mistake the West keeps making is to assume we are the good guys.

There are always two sides to a conflict, always two views, even if objective analysis shows one to be in the wrong. ‘Zulu’ is a cracking film of bravery against the odds, but did the Good Guys win? The Good Guys clearly won WW2, albeit with the British carpet-bombing German cities, the Americans nuking Japan and the Russians throwing mercy to the wind as they closed on Berlin. Afterwards, the colonies and liberated territories simply wanted us gone. We view Liberal Capitalist (Christian) Democracy as the gold standard, but a huge chunk of the rest of the world does not agree. Capitalism is widely viewed as a Bad Thing and destructive of the environment, democracy is despised as weak, liberalism as decadent. Newly created democracies easily succumb to corruption, infighting and sham elections, turning the reign of the last dictator into some kind of golden age. Some religious groups even argue that government comes from God, not man, so democracy is fundamentally wrong.

Because we believe we are right, we gain the moral justification to act in our interests with all the power at our disposal. This view has probably triggered more conflicts than any other in modern history.

When writing, one can flirt with the opposing viewpoints of each side to avoid being simplistic. MI6 or KGB operatives are simply doing their job for their country, and the moral ambiguity of the spy thriller means that the line between good and evil is blurred. War movies and westerns from the 1960s onwards moved away from the flag-waver to the ‘anti-war’ movie where the enemy is human too. We even see clumsy attempts in terrorist fiction to get into the hearts and minds of the suicide bombers and jihadi killers; but for the meantime, they are the baddies, period.

Back in the dangerous and unstable real world we yearn for the simplicity of a 007 supervillain to fight. Our film fiction grasps at hollow victories snatched from a mess of inconclusive or disastrous interventions. Watching say ‘Black Hawk Down’ or ’13 Hours’ where flag-waving AK-toting gunmen are shot down like Red Indians in a 1950s B movie, we can see articulation of that simplicity; an against-the-odds mission to save your buddies amid a geopolitical clusterfuck. However, looking at those heaps of bodies of fighters at the end of the movie, killed in their own countries by foreign interventionists, we have to ask; are we the good guys?

 

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