Winston Churchill or Lord Bath? The Power and Problems of Historical Analogy

“Trump is like the Nazis.”

“Johnson is like Charles I.”

“Corbyn is Stalin all over again.”

“Nice parliament you’ve got there. Would be a shame if someone was to shut it down…”

Every time political news breaks, it’s accompanied by a raft of historical analogies. Whether it’s comparing immigrant internment camps with those used against the Boers and Jews or comparing the British Prime Minister’s policies with those that triggered the Civil War, these are powerful images.

I’m always pleased to see people learning from history, and perhaps becoming better informed through these comparisons. But I’m also very wary of these analogies. They’re powerful, in both good and bad ways.

How Analogies Help the Individual

Historical analogies can be really useful to us as citizens.

Firstly, they help us understand what’s happening. Familiar stories and recurring patterns give us a way to wrap our brains around events. Past examples create expectations for the future, reducing uncertainty.

Man carrying heavy crate
An analogy would be so much lighter.

Then there’s the emotional weight they carry. Not just the alleviation of uncertainty, but the summoning of other feelings. Analogies give us an instinctive feel for whether an event is good or bad. They tap into existing feelings, and so do the emotional heavy lifting for us.

Together, these factors mobilise us to action. That might be protest, it might be voting, it might be sitting back in pleased acceptance. Whatever the outcome, the analogy helps get you there.

How Analogies Help the Politician

Analogies are also incredibly useful for politicians.

Because they’re heavy in information, they can convey a complex message in a simple way. That’s an important tool when trying to either persuade or inform citizens.

For politicians relying on shaky logic, analogies can be particularly useful. Once people accept that situation A is like situation B in one way, they are more likely to assume that it’s similar in other ways. That saves the politician from explaining how A will actually reach a particular outcome – it will get there because B did. This smooths over contradictions and logic gaps.

This is a great way to justify policies. “You know what happened last time we ignored a country backing religious extremists…” is a great excuse for kicking off on Iran. But it ignores the differences between Iran and “the last time”, as well as the religious extremists we’ve left alone.

The Weakness in Historical Analogies

This leads into the bigger issues with historical analogies.

“What the hell? No-one ever cites me in blog posts! Couldn’t you find a picture of Churchill?”

Firstly there’s the pretense of objectivity that historical comparisons bring. Which analogy you choose is subjective and based on what point you want to make. Whether you compare Boris Johnson to Charles I, Julius Ceasar, or Lord Bath is a matter of political choice. Johnson’s attempts to make us think of Churchill have been almost comedically blatant.

It’s possible to choose from many different good analogies to any situation, which can teach valuable yet contradictory lessons. It’s also possible to pick bad analogies and have people accept them.

Analogies are dangerous because of the simplifications they bring. The analogy itself usually ignores nuance and difference. The vision of the past period it summons is usually a simplified, stripped-down one, ignoring debates, uncertainties, and complications about what happened. By extension, it makes the current situation seem simpler than it is.

Any analogy comes with assumptions about cause and effect, based on common historical understanding. “X was followed by Y, so if Z is like X than Y will happen again.” But what if X didn’t cause Y? Or what if, as is usually the case, it was caused by multiple complex factors? In that case, Z could have very different results.

Every situation is different from every one that came before, if only because we know about the previous ones.

Should We Ignore Historical Analogies?

So should we ignore historical analogies?

Of course not. And I don’t just say that because I write about history for money.

Historical analogies are very useful. They can provide perspective and understanding. They can motivate us to action, if only to ensure that the outcome is different this time, that the analogy breaks down and we free ourselves from history’s heavy hand.

But we should be very careful with analogies. We should be aware of their limits. And we should watch out for when they’re used to manipulate us, by our political allies as much as our opponents. Because the insidious analogies aren’t the ones we laugh at or decry. They’re the ones we unquestioningly accept because they feel right.

Closing In On The Details

When you’re evoking a different world, whether it’s a fiction or the past, details matter. Details make it surprising. Details make it real.

I’ve been reading a book called Freedom’s Battle, Volume 2. It’s a collection of first-hand accounts of the air war in World War Two, mostly from the British point of view. As you can guess from the title, it’s not the most balanced perspective on the war, perhaps not surprising for a book that came out in the 1960s, when the memory of that conflict was still raw for many people. But for all its faults, this is a fascinating book.

There are so many details I could never have imagined for myself. The reality of what it’s like to be in a plane as it’s shredded by gunfire. The horrors of being adrift on the Atlantic without supplies following a crash. The crude songs to keep spirits up. The articles written by airmen, spoofing life in service. What it’s like trying to spot enemy aircraft at night.

Secondary sources, those history books analysing what happened and why, are great for a broad perspective and to understand cause and effect. But to understand what events feel like, to get a sense of the reality of lived experience, nothing beats firsthand accounts. All those strange, unimaginable little details make the world come alive.

I Hoped That In London… – a flash historical story

The noise and smell of London’s streets were overwhelming. Carters and traders, street preachers and half-drunk apprentices shouted at each other across roads that ran with rotting refuse. A pamphleteer waved a sheet of printed paper in my face and talked excitedly about how God and Drake had saved England from the King of Spain’s armada. I was about to tell him that I couldn’t read, never mind spare a penny for his wares, but he had already cast an eye over my tattered clothes, drawn his own conclusions, and moved on.

I walked along the street, stopping at every shop and tavern I passed. At each one my question was the same:

“Do you have work?”

And always the same answer – a swift no, often with a look of disdain or with eyes that would not meet mine.

“Please, I’ll do anything,” I said to a stable master. “I work hard.”

“Then why don’t you have work already?” he asked.

“Things are tough on the south coast,” I explained. “Jobs are scarce. I hoped that in London…”

He shook his head.

“Everyone has high hopes for London. But we’ve all got our business to be about, and I don’t have time to spare for vagrants.”

I slipped away, shoulders slumped, and sat at a street corner while I tried to find the will to continue. As wealthy men passed I held out a hopeful hand, but buying fine doublets had left them all without a penny to spare.

As dusk fell, a group of young men in matching blue livery came striding down the street. One of them pointed and they stopped.

“No money, old man?” they stopped said. I couldn’t have been ten years his senior, by I knew I wore those years like coarse and crumpled cloth.

“No,” I said, head hanging. “And no roof to shelter me.”

“Come with us.”

My heart lifted as they helped me to my feet and led me down the narrow alley between two houses. Then they stopped, surrounded me, and pulled out wooden cudgels.

“Another filthy, lazy vagrant trying to live off others’ work,” the leader said. “Time to teach you a lesson.”

*

“You alright there?”

A man loomed over me. He wore a simple tunic and had a mass of wild hair, but it was hard to make out more in the thin lantern light that crept down the alley.

I pushed myself up on one elbow and wiped the blood from under my nose. Even that much movement hurt.

“Why’d they do that?” I asked, bewildered.

“Apprentices, was it? The authorities encourage ‘em. They’ve got more love for those stuck-up pricks than for the gutter-born like us.”

“I was born in a barn.”

“Ah, a country lad. New to the city?”

I nodded, which made my head spin.

“Then let me offer you a lesson,” he said as he helped me to my feet. “No-one with power here gives a fig whether you live or die. God’s harsh truth. But the likes of you and me, we look after our own. Head down to the brick kilns in Islington and ask for big hands Davey. Tell him little Bill sent you. He’ll sort you out.”

“Thank you,” I said, so grateful for kindness that I almost cried. “How can I pay you back?”

Little Bill chuckled.

“Don’t worry about that. It’s between Davey and me.”

*

“You look like a strong lad,” Davey said in a lilting voice. “Done lots of heavy lifting, have you?”

“Used to bring in the grain,” I said. “But there wasn’t enough work the last few years.”

“Well, we’re after a different sort of harvest.”

There was laughter from the half dozen men and women he’d gathered between a pair of brick kilns. They were a friendly bunch, plainly dressed, many of them visibly scarred. A woman handed me a hefty stick like the ones they were all carrying.

“We’re going to visit a dyer by the name of Roberts,” Davey said. “He’s been making a pretty penny lately, and it’s time to share the wealth. Lizzy and the new lad, once we get in, you head straight to the bedroom and grab his wife – surest way to get his cooperation. The rest of you, see what looks shiny.”

I tried to hide my horror from my new friends. Without them, I was alone in the city.

“We’re robbing him?” I asked.

“Don’t worry, boyo,” Davey said. “We don’t rob anyone who doesn’t deserve it. Think of how they looked at you, what they let those apprentices do to the likes of you and me. This is justice, so it is.”

I took a deep breath and tried to gather my thoughts, but I was hungry and tired and full of pain, altogether too distracted to do anything but agree.

*

As we crept towards the darkened house, Davey stopped us one last time.

“This Roberts is a strong one,” he said. “So swing clubs first and ask questions later.”

I remembered the apprentices clubs swinging at me, the thud of their boots against my flesh. The stick felt heavy in my hand.

Davey kicked the door open and the gang raced in past him. He turned to look at me, the only man to give me aide or shelter.

The man who wanted me to make me a robber.

I dropped the stick, turned, and ran.

*

The noise and smell of London’s streets receded as I trudged south. Maybe I’d find harvest work, maybe I wouldn’t. But I would rather starve back home than give in to those streets.


Elizabethan England wasn’t often kind to people who were down on their luck, who flocked to London in growing numbers as economic and social changes caused difficulties elsewhere. And while our protagonist heading home makes for a satisfying ending, it wasn’t a realistic option for many. There’s a reason historians write so much about crime and vagrancy in this era.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

You can read more about From a Foreign Shore, including what other readers thought here. It’s available on Kindle through Amazon.

Filling the Gaps in the Past

I’ve been working on a comic script for Commando. Unusually for me, it involves real historical figures, not just fictional characters thrust into real events. During the course of the story, several of these real people die in battle. It’s important to the story that those deaths happen, and that’s going to work best if it happens on the page, as dramatic turns in the course of battle scenes.

So far so straightforward.

Here’s the catch – in every case, we don’t know how these people died. We know which battles they died in, but not who killed them or how. One has been the source of much debate, but for the other two, there’s just no evidence of the details.

That creates an opportunity, and with it a dilemma. Because of the uncertainty about these deaths, I could depict one of the characters doing the deed. It would add to the drama, and that’s a large part of what storytelling is about.

But that feels presumptuous to me. One thing I know is that my characters didn’t kill these people, because my characters didn’t exist. If I put the blood on their hands then I’m giving them a weight of historical significance, and I’m not sure they can stand beneath it. Maybe if the story was all about the man who killed such-and-such, then I could do it. But as a passing moment of drama in some other story? It feels like a stretch.

Do I give those deaths more emotional consequence in the story by involving my fictional creations, or do I acknowledge their real significance by keeping my characters out of it? I haven’t decided yet, but as a writer and someone passionate about history, it’s a really interesting question.

Men of War – a flash historical story

The Surrender of the Prince Royal by Willem van de Velde the Younger

“Master van de Velde!” I exclaimed as the artist walked up the gangplank. “How good to see you. Out sketching ships again?”

“Oh yes!” Willem van de Velde said, setting down a bag of paper and pencils. He pulled out a pouch of coins and passed it to me. “I wish to set out immediately. Will this suffice?”

I opened the bag, peered at its mix of gold and silver, and felt its weight.

“It certainly will,” I said, then raised my voice to reach the crew. “Boys, get ready to cast off!”

The younger Willem van de Velde appeared behind his father, just before the gangplank was stowed away. Then we unfurled the single sail of my little galliot and headed out, threading our way through the maze of merchantmen that crowded the docks of the Hague, their timbers creaking and rigging whistling in the wind.

“Where to today?” I asked.

“West,” van de Velde said, a strange twinkle in his eyes. “Towards England.”

“Isn’t that where the fleet went?” I asked, breaking into a sweat despite the wind. “To fight the English?”

“That’s why we’re going there,” van de Velde the Younger said. “To turn war into art, retrieve beauty from horror, and capture a moment of great patriotic pride.”

“Which men will pay dearly to hang on their walls,” his father said.

“We usually avoid battles.” I twisted my cap nervously in my hands. “On account of all the killing and sinking. I think you’d better find another ship.”

“Really?” van de Velde the elder said, tossing me another bag of coins.

“Patriotic pride, you say?” With that weight in my hand, ambition overcame fear. “Then it’s our duty as Dutchmen to help you.”

*

By the time we got near the battle, my ambition was sinking beneath the weight of my nerves.

The sea was thick with ships, great men-of-war with full sails and bristling gun decks. They edged towards each other in long columns, smoke billowing around them, cannons roaring. The smallest could have contained my poor boat a dozen times over.

“Surely this is near enough,” I said, watching war unfold before me.

The mainmast of the nearest ship shook, then toppled slowly over, hitting the deck with a crash. The screams of mangled sailors were far too loud across the open water.

“We must get closer,” van de Velde the elder said. He sketched as he spoke, leaning on a board that rested on the rail, pencil flying back and forth across the page.

“But the danger!”

“They’ll be shooting at each other, not us,” the younger said, adding a dab of watercolour to his own work. “We need to get in with the fleet, before and behind the ships, to see the timbers splinter and flames roar, to capture the giddy heart of battle.”

“I’m not sure that my heart can take-”

Another bag of coins landed at my feet.

“Well, when you put it like that.” I raised my voice. “Boys, we’re getting in close!”

*

Months later, I sat in a dockside tavern, sipping at a cup of warm ale. This stuff didn’t taste as good as it used to, but then, nothing did. The days seemed greyer, the songs less lively. Perhaps if I had been sleeping better, that might have changed, but I woke in the night dreaming of the cannons’ roar and the van de Veldes’ sketches.

An old shipmate came to sit with me.

“Did you hear?” he said. “There’s been more trouble at sea. Fleet’s heading out to give the English a bloody nose.”

My heart raced. I smelled gun smoke and heard the crack of shattering timbers.

“Excuse me,” I said, downing my beer and abandoning my seat. “I have business to attend.”

I ran down to the docks. Sure enough, there were the van de Veldes, bags in hand, eyeing up fast vessels.

“Excuse me, sirs,” I said, rushing up to them.

“Captain!” van de Velde the Elder said. “I thought that you were, in your words, done with our madness.”

There was a strange twinkle in his eyes again. I recognised it now, having seen it in my own reflection. He too heard the battle rage around him and felt his heart hammer at the thrill of it.

“I was over hasty,” I said, leading them towards my galliot. “In these troubled times, an honest sailor cannot afford to turn down business.”

“I understand,” van de Velde the Elder said, nodding solemnly. He handed me a bag of coins. “Here. I wish to sail west.”

* * *

 

This is one of those stories where the real history was so wild that I didn’t need to make it up. Willem van de Velde the Elder and Younger were 17th century Dutch artists who specialised in nautical scenes. During the Anglo-Dutch wars, they would sail with the fleet to make sketches of the battles, getting right in amid the action. These sketches became the basis for grand, dramatic paintings that celebrated the achievements of the Dutch fleet. They later emigrated to England, where they were employed by King Charles II.

If you enjoyed this story then you might want to sign up for my mailing list. You’ll get free flash fiction straight to your inbox every week, as well as updates on my other releases. And you can read more historical fiction and alternate history in my collection From a Foreign Shore, only 99c in all e-book formats.

My Top Reads of 2018 – Non-Fiction

Continuing my review of the year in books, here are some of my favourite non-fiction reads from 2018. They didn’t necessarily come out this year, but now is when I found and enjoyed them. If you’ve particularly enjoyed a non-ficiton book this year, tell me about it in the comments – I’m always on the lookout for more.

Gender Identity and Sexuality in Current Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Francesca T Barbini

To say that modern society faces problems with gender and sexuality would be an understatement up there with “King John seems a little bit off.” As half of society tries to adopt a more nuanced, egalitarian attitude, the other half kicks back, desperately clinging to binary divisions and patriarchal structures. Movements like gamergate and the sad puppies have turned geek culture into a battleground on gender issues, spewing angry invectives and threats of violence at people who question the status quo. “How dare they fill speculative fiction with gays and women?” the trolls cry out. “It was fine being all about straight white men!”

In that environment, it was particularly pleasing to see a British Fantasy Award go to Luna Press’s excellent collection of articles on gender and sexuality in speculative fiction. Articles in this book cover a wide range of topics, from the myth of meritocracy in publishing to the remarkable improvement in gender representation in the Magic the Gathering card game. These thought-provoking pieces by smart writers address both the content of our fiction and the process surrounding it, encouraging readers to look at gender and sexuality in geek culture from a dozen different angles.

This is academic writing of a relatively accessible type, aimed at wider readers with an interest in the field. It takes some effort, but if you’re interested in issues of social justice or the state of sf+f then it’s well worth a look. It’s a book whose existence and well-earned plaudits will help shift our culture in a more positive direction.

The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

Speaking of gender, I wrote back in June about Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War. Six months later, it still haunts me, one of the most remarkable history books I’ve read in my life, never mind this year.

Researched and written in the late 1970s and early 1980s, this book details the experience of women serving in the Soviet armed forces during the Second World War. It reveals a side of the war that fitted poorly with official accounts and heroic re-tellings, showing the vital place of women on the Eastern Front and the awful realities they faced. Despite its huge significance, it only appeared in English last year, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

Filled with veterans’ own accounts of the war, it’s a powerful testimony to the experiences of soldiers, sailors, pilots, and support staff. Their struggles, their traumas, their losses, their fleeting moments of joy, all are laid bare on the page. But it’s not just about the moments of violent struggle. It’s also about the transformation of civilians into warriors, of women into men’s roles, how that changed them and how it affected their lives once the war ended. It’s also an account of Alexievich’s own mission to uncover these hidden stories, the way she related to the women she interviewed, and the way they viewed the war decades later.

The phrase “we have always fought” has become a rallying cry for the re-examination of women’s place in history and in the fiction influenced by it. The Unwomanly Face of War provides the ultimate evidence of how tragically true that phrase is.

Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare by Giles Milton

Another unconventional look at the Second World War, Milton’s book delves into Britain’s covert operations. When Churchill called out for Europe to be set ablaze in resistance to the Nazis, these were the people who built him a bigger match and worked out where best to light it.

The book covers three aspects of their work. First, there were the mad inventors of the weapon’s making division, men like Cecil Clarke and Stuart Macrae who invented the limpet mine using condoms and aniseed balls. Then there were the trainers, men like Eric Sykes and William Fairbairn, the professional sharp-shooter and former police commander who taught men to kill with their bare hands. And finally, there were the operatives themselves, sent on dangerous missions deep in occupied Europe, committing acts of sabotage and assassination in the name of freedom.

Unlike The Unwomanly Face of WarChurchill’s Ministry sometimes glamourises its subjects, both the people and the missions. There’s a sense of boy’s own adventure in places that’s at odds with the true ugliness of events. But the overall tone is one of exploring the extraordinary, from the ingenuity of inventors to the courage and determination of undercover operatives. It’s an unexpected and seldom discussed niche within much larger events, compelling as much for the odd characters as for what they achieved.

Harriet’s War

This week, I have a new comic out from Commando – Harriet’s War.

Harriet’s War is part of a series from Commando marking the centenary of the armistice that ended the First World War. Called The Weekes’ War, the series follows several members of a single family, all serving in British forces.

As I’ve written about before, World War One is an important part of history. It was a war of unprecedented destruction in which people were reduced to cogs in industrial-scale killing machines. Because of the way soldiers were recruited, entire communities sometimes lost a generation of young men. Seeing how the war could touch the many members of a single family is particularly fitting, as well as a smart way to show different sides of the war.

Showing different sides is why I’m particularly proud to have written Harriet’s War. It’s only right and proper that we talk about the millions of young men who fought and died in the Allied armies, but it’s also important to remember other people and places, and that’s what Harriet’s War does.

The central characters, Harriet and Vera, are both women. Though very few women fought in the war, many were involved in it. Filling roles such as factory workers and nurses, they did hard, sometimes dangerous work. Though it was driven by men, this wasn’t just a men’s war.

This story focuses on medicine in a time of war. Harriet and Vera are an ambulance crew, risking death in no man’s land to save injured soldiers. We don’t often see the work of medical staff in war, but from frontline combat medics to the surgeons rebuilding broken bodies, theirs is tough, vital, life-saving, heart-breaking work. Without them, countless more lives would be lost, and it’s good to see them get the recognition they deserve.

Once Harriet gets out between the trenches, the story shows yet another side of the war – the experience of the Germans. In Britain, we mostly focus on the Allied experience, whether intentionally or by default. But a generation of German youths went through the same hardship the Allies did, the same losses, the same horrors. By the late war, they were battered, demoralised, struggling to survive. When Harriet encounters a German unit, the story takes a dramatic turn, one that reveals the humanity of the other side.

Of course, there are still many other sides to the war, ones that aren’t included here. From the struggle on the Eastern Front to the fighting in Africa to the war at sea, they are too easily forgotten when discussing the war. We can’t deal with them all at once, but we can at least make a start. If there’s a part of the war you think is under-represented, leave a comment about it and I’ll try to write about it in the future.

Art for this issue is by an artist who’s new to Commando – Khato of Creaciones Editoriales. As I write this, I haven’t yet seen the finished issue, but based on the pages you can see here I think it’s going to be great, full of vivid action and character. I love the collaborative element of comics, the way an artist gives the story life in ways the writer never even imagined. This is no exception.

On a personal note, this issue features a small tribute to my Great Aunt Vera, who died earlier this year. Vera was born during the war and lost her father to the fighting in the trenches. She went on to become an extraordinary person in her own right, lively, outspoken, and insightful until the end. Harriet’s friend and colleague is named after her.

Harriet’s War will be out in newsagents and on Comixology this Thursday, the 29th. Other issues of The Weekes’ War are already out there for you to buy. I hope that you enjoy this journey into some of the less remembered parts of the First World War.

 

All art © DC Thomson and Co. Ltd  2018

The Dirt Beneath Messines – a flash historical story

I woke with a start, sitting bolt upright on my lumpy, flea-ridden mattress. My head hit the bunk above me and I stifled a curse. In the surrounding darkness, the men of my company filling our dugout with the rumbling chorus of their snores.

I’d had the nightmare again. The one where the British stormed our trenches and I was taken captive. Mocked, beaten, scorned, an embarrassment to my family. Girls I had known back home pointing and laughing at me through the bars of a cage.

I swung my legs around to sit, hunched, on the side of my bed and laid a hand on my rifle. If the British came then I would not let them capture me, no matter what. Death before dishonour.

A stub of candle was stuck to a tin lid by my bed. I struck a match, lit the wick, and reached for my boots. If I couldn’t sleep then I might as well go up to the trenches and help keep watch.

Before I could get my boots on, the roar of an explosion filled the air, shaking the room. The sound of it drove the breath from my lungs. At the far end of the dugout, roof beams gave way and the earth fell in, burying men in their beds.

As the room kept shaking, men tumbled out of their beds, looking around in alarm. We were meant to be too deep for any shell to penetrate. We were meant to be safe.

Timbers groaned, creaked, cracked like God snapping his fingers. Dirt tumbled down the stairwell and into the room.

I rushed barefoot across the rough floor and peered up the stairs. They were filled with fallen soil and broken timbers.

Hans appeared beside me, dressed in only his underwear, a wild look on his face.

“We have to get out,” he said. “Before we’re trapped here forever.”

Some men came to us, while others dug frantically to rescue the buried men.

My skin crawled at a whole new imagined dread – the thought of being trapped not just in a cage but beneath the earth. My pulse quickened. Hans was right. We had to get out.

I grabbed a trenching tool and scrambled up the stairwell, the dirt cold and damp between my toes, until I couldn’t ascend any further. Then I started digging, hurling rocks and soil down behind me, opening a gap just wide enough for me to wriggle forward and keep digging.

Hans came up behind me and I could hear others behind him, shovelling the dirt back from one man to the next until it hit the floor of the dugout.

The ground shook again and I heard something fall. Dirt cascaded across my arms, almost trapping them.

“Faster!” someone yelled. “The whole place is going to collapse.”

I tore at the heaped earth with my digging tool, flinging dirt into the faces of the men behind me. My knuckles scraped against fallen boards and rocks. Dirt filled the grazes. Pain flashed and my heart raced.

My hands burst through a last layer of dirt and into air. I writhed out of the fallen earth and into a clear stretch of stairwell. Above me, I saw a rectangle of grey dawn sky.

I laughed, turned, and started digging again, trying to make a way through for the others.

There was a roar and I was flung from my feet. The walls came crashing down on top of me. I was swallowed into the darkness of the earth.

I couldn’t breath. Not just couldn’t reach the air but couldn’t move my lungs. I strained, trying to force air down, got only a mouthful of dirt. Panic gripped me and I would have sobbed in pity for myself if only I could have made a sound.

Desperately, I strained with my right arm, forcing fingers through the weight of dirt. They found the broken edge of a plank and I gripped it tight, trying to ignore the splinters piercing my palm as I heaved with all my strength. My body moved an inch, then another. I forced my other arm around, like swimming in slow motion, and took hold with that hand too.

My head was spinning, my chest burning. Muscles trembled as I pulled on the plank, dragging myself higher.

The dirt loosened. My chest heaved. I drew in air as well as dirt, but still it wasn’t enough. Muscles trembled as I tapped into the last of my strength.

Writhing and twisting, I worked my way up through the ground until my arm burst out into the open air. Moments later, I slithered snake-like from what had seemed to be my tomb and lay panting on the ground.

The world was filled with shouting, strange men using unfamiliar words. One appeared at the mouth of the stairwell, only a few feet away. He pointed his gun straight at me, a figure out of my nightmares, ready to drag me off into captivity.

I laughed and flung my hands up.

How sweet it was to breath again and to know that I might keep on breathing.

Better dishonour than death.

* * *

 

Harriet’s War, a comic I wrote set in the First World War, is out next week, so it seemed like a good time to return to that era.

I’ve written before about the attack on Messines Ridge, when the Allies triggered the largest non-nuclear explosion in military history. In To Win Just Once, I showed that action from the perspective of the New Zealand troops attacking the ridge. Ever since then I’ve been fascinated by the awful idea of what it would have been like to be on the other side, among the ten thousand Germans killed or buried alive in the explosion. This story is about that.

If you enjoyed this story then you might want to sign up for my mailing list. You’ll get free flash fiction straight to your inbox every week, as well as updates on my other releases. And watch out next week for more about Harriet’s War.

Remembrance

In all of human history, there have been few events as monstrously destructive as the First World War.

For four blood-soaked years, the most powerful nations in Europe tore at each other tooth and nail, dragging other countries and colonies into their terrible fight. From the forests of Russia to the lowlands of Belgium, from the deserts of Mesopotamia to the South Pacific Ocean, millions of men and women died. For the first time, war was fought on an industrial scale. The results were horrifying.

This war wasn’t fought for a noble cause. Yes, there were aggressors and there were victims. But every nation involved was fighting for self-interest. Nationalism had its grip on Europe. Making your own country stronger was viewed as the highest good, even if other people died horribly in the process. Both sides accused each other of atrocities. Both did terrible things. Among the most terrible was the feeding of a generation of young men into the meat grinder.

When we talk about the Second World War, there’s a sense of right and wrong. The Allies killed thousands of innocent civilians in their bombing raids, but the actions of the German and Japanese regimes were so much worse that the end result looks like a victory for good. A century on, the same can’t be said for the First World War. Like almost every war, it wasn’t about good versus evil. It was just national elite versus national elite, spilling the blood of their countrymen for their own power.

Of course, there were moments of heroism in that war. Acts of courage, determination, and self-sacrifice that are rightly praised. But don’t let that praise spill over in your mind into seeing the war itself as a noble thing. Europe watered the fields of Flanders with the blood of its young men, and the world was the worse off for it.

One hundred years ago yesterday, the guns fell silent at the end of the First World War. It’s vital that we remember. This is what the tribalism of nation versus nation gets us. This is what happens when we let ourselves see others as worse because of where they live, the language they speak, or who governs them. This is why we should always challenge those in authority, however uncomfortable that becomes.

Remember the courage. Remember the determination. But most of all, remember the futility of a generation lost.

Guy Fawkes Night, history, and memory

Remember, remember!
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!

– English 19th century folk verse

Yes, it’s the fifth of November, the weirdest day in the British calendar! Tonight, we celebrate the thwarting of a terrorist plot over four hundred years ago. An attempt to blow up Parliament and the King is ritually condemned using explosives, bonfires, and outdoor drinking.

This is Britain. Any celebration involves some sort of drinking.

I love bonfire night. Living in Leeds, I get to go to one of the most spectacular displays in the country, thanks to the massive effort at Roundhay Park. There’ll be a bonfire the size of an Aztec temple and a fireworks display that would knock your socks off. Thousands of people from across West Yorkshire come to see it, so the air is full of gasps and cheers. I can smell the smoke and hear the inane chatter of the local radio hosts already.

Even if I wasn’t going to a great display, I’d love bonfire night. The spectacle, the shared ritual, getting back into the warm afterwards, it’s great fun.

But is it actually much good for remembering the past?

I mean sure, we all know the name of Guy Fawkes and the first few lines of that poem. School kids get taught the story long before they learn about bigger, more recent events. So in that sense, it’s emblazoned across our minds like the memory of a bad breakup.

But if remembering the past is about avoiding its mistakes, then we really aren’t remembering the gunpowder plot very well. It was a product of a time of deep division, of polarised religious and political views. A time when minorities were oppressed and scapegoated. All of which sounds a bit too familiar.

The fact that we bang on about Guy Fawkes even reinforces a bad lesson. We ignore the fact that he represented a larger group and a deeper division. He is the scapegoat, ritually thrown on the fire every year.

As a historian, it pains me. Even I can’t remember the other conspirators without looking on Wikipedia. We’re remembering the faintest surface details and using them to celebrate someone’s messy demise. That’s kind of ugly and definitely missing the point.

I still love bonfire night. Nothing in the world is perfect, but some things are too awesome to miss out on. But as an act of remembering, it leaves a lot to be desired.