Bertha’s Handbag

BerthasHandbag

(Brian Bennett [CC / Flickr])

“You can have the chocolate when we get home, Sam,” said Bertha. “You promised to be good and I promised you the chocolate if you were. But until we get home, I can’t tell if you were good the whole time we were out, can I? So if you’re good to me, I’ll be good to you and give you the chocolate.”

Her grandson dragged on her hand where he held it, but she pretended not to notice. She wasn’t one of those over-indulgent grandparents who returned children to their parents high on sugar and convinced they were entitled to whatever they wanted. She’d made it her business to ensure Sam was well versed in the ways of honesty and virtue. A few moments of hand-dragging was as much protest as he’d offer, and he’d give that up when she didn’t react.

A woman crossed the road in front of her, and Bertha stopped when she recognised the vicar. “Marjorie! What a surprise. Now you must tell me, where did you get that handbag? It looks brand new.”

“Oh Bertha, you have an eagle eye for self-indulgence,” said Marjorie. “They had a batch in the clearance shop down the road. I saw it through the window and decided there wasn’t a moment to lose. I baggsied the second to last that they had. No pun intended.”

Bertha laughed. People liked you for laughing at their jokes, and it was much easier to deal with people who liked you. “if the lord sees fit to place a handbag in your way, it would be rude not to seize the opportunity. Perhaps even ungracious.”

“That’s just what I thought.” Marjorie frowned. “More or less.”

“Marjorie, would you mind watching Sam for a minute or two? I really need to spend a penny and it’ll be easier to sneak into that pub toilet on my own.”

“Dear me, you of all people sneaking into a pub,” said Marjorie, so Bertha had to indulge her with another laugh. “Of course I will, we won’t mover from this spot, will we Sam?”

Sam looked up but said nothing. Bertha suppressed a swell of pride at the obedience she’d instilled in him.

Bertha crossed the road to enter the pub’s front door. It was on a street corner so she was able to leave through a side door that Marjorie and Sam wouldn’t be able to see. She took a roundabout route though the backstreets to the clearance shop but it only took a couple of minutes and someone had helpfully parked a white van in front of it, so she didn’t have to worry about Marjorie seeing her going in.

The handbag sat alone on a stand in front of the door. The manager had evidently decided it was worth pride of place. Bertha walked straight past it to the shoe rack, sparing it no more than a glance out of the corner of her eye. The price tag read £99. No doubt it would be twice or three times that in Zara or Liberty’s or wherever the brand had been designed for, but she couldn’t justify spending so much on a handbag. She would be prising Sam’s inheritance from his sticky hands.

She sidled over to the dress racks, where several other women were milling around. Their attention was firmly on the dresses rather than on each other, and the dresses formed a curtain between Bertha and the nearest shop assistant. A quick glance around and she knew that if she turned to the trouser suits behind her, none of the cameras would be able to see anything below her shoulders either. It was doubly fortuitous that the trouser suits were where they were; not much womenswear had pockets.

With one hand, Bertha slid one suit after the other along the rail as if she was looking for the perfect combination of size and colour. With the other, she felt in her coat pocket for the packet of cigarettes – wouldn’t she just die if Marjorie saw them? – and slipped the whole bundle into a pocket. Without breaking the rhythm of her sliding of hangers, she slipped her lighter into the pocket and lit as many as she could.

As if none of the trouser suits had caught her attention, she walked round to the blouses which happened to place her in full view of the camera by the time there was enough smoke coming out of the trouser suit to set the smoke detector off.

She dropped the blouse she was holding up, as any respectable middle-aged woman would when startled by the unholy racket of a fire alarm.

The shop assistant looked just as startled, but gathered herself faster than the customers who were looking around as if they couldn’t react to the fire alarm until they saw it.

The shop assistant struggled to make herself heard until she walked over to the clothes racks, when a combination of shouts and gestures got all the women moving in a gaggle toward the exit.

The gaggle had to break in two to pass on either side of the stand with the handbag on it, which kept them between Bertha and any inquisitive cameras as she slipped the handbag under her coat. The customers dispersed as soon as they got outside. It wasn’t the sort of shop that people went into because they had business pressing enough to be worth waiting for.

Bertha retraced her steps through the backstreets, through the pub and across the road to where Sam was waiting as patiently as Marjorie. He was such a good boy.

“Thank you, Marjorie, you’re a life-saver.”

“My pleasure,” said Marjorie. “Well, I must be getting along. I’ll see you on Sunday.”

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world. Your sermons set me up for the week.”

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Coldwater Cottage – 1: The Surface

Coldwater CottageWelcome to the promised new serialisation from the Eclectics, which will post at the same time every Monday for the next few weeks. I have fond memories of outlining Coldwater Cottage in a bar in Dahab, in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, looking out over the Red Sea that I couldn’t dive in because I’d come down with a cold. Perhaps that explains why Ian doesn’t have a wonderful time on his own dive, but I hope you’ll have a good time following him under the English Channel to Coldwater Cottage:

“Don’t.” Ian was tense, and he wanted Jakki to know it.

Jakki sighed and tucked the cigarette packet back into her cagoule. “It’s not dope, Big Brother, it’s just a fag.”

Ian waved at the can connected to the outboard motor. “This is just a tank of petrol. It doesn’t know the difference.”

Jakki gave him a look he’d seen a thousand times on the faces of the teenage runaways, prostitutes and drug addicts he spent his weekdays trying to turn into something other than human detritus. It was a look that said, ‘I know you mean well, but what you’re saying has nothing to do with me’. It always frustrated him, but seeing the same look on his sister’s face hurt him in ways he doubted she could imagine.

“Here, zip me up will you?” He said.

Jakki half crouched and half crawled over to him, unused to the motion of the small boat. He showed her how to close the zip across his shoulders and seal him into his drysuit. He attached the buoyancy jacket to the scuba tank and checked the regulators. Two hundred bars of air should give him plenty of time, but making the checks alone left him feeling naked. He was breaking the first rule of diving by going alone, and his club only let him hire the equipment because he said he was meeting a friend from another club.

“You know there probably won’t be a thing down there but a pile of boulders?”

“You’ll find the cottage. Mum will help you.”

It was like trying to persuade an addict to clean up. Their mother had died in a car crash eighteen years ago, when he’d been six and she was two. Ian could see how she’d built her hazy memories into a guide and guardian angel over the years they’d been apart, but that didn’t make it any more likely he’d find a house that had fallen off the edge of a cliff. He looked at the fortnight-old scar in the chalk where several hundred tons of rock had crumbled beneath their childhood home and dropped it into the English Channel, probably crushing and burying it in the process. It was eleven years since Ian promised himself he would never set eyes on Coldwater Cottage again. He didn’t think he was likely to break the promise today.

Next week: The Dive


The full story is available from the Amazon Kindle store, and is part of the Steel in the Morning collection which is available in Kindle or paperback format.

Coldwater Cottage was originally published in Lamplight 1:2 and subsequently in the Lamplight Volume 1 annual.

Author notes

Goodreads

Cover by Manda Benson

 

Other stories by DJ Cockburn available online

Steel in the Morning

Newgate Jig

The Endocrine Tyranny

Peppermint Tea in Electronic Limbo

Foreclosure

Cassandra’s Cargo

Mars One

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Posted in Coldwater Cottage, Uncategorized

The Magnet’s Pupils

TheMagnetsPupils

(Tim Brockley [CC / Flickr])

I swear, we only wanted a coffee until Phil set eyes on the barista. He walked into the place, took one look at her, then grabbed Andy and I and bundled us outside. “What d’you think?”

“Huh?” Andy wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer.

I’d only got a brief look at her, but I could see what Phil was getting at. She had that smooth skinned blonde look. I guessed she was what should be called a seven, but I was new to thinking like this so perhaps she’d be an eight without the pinstriped apron.

“Her, you muppet,” said Phil. “What’ve we been doing all day?”

“We’ve been in a seminar with a bloke called the Babe Magnet, learning his tricks.”

Phil rolled his eyes. He’d turned to face Andy rather than me. He’d obviously decided that Andy needed a leader and he was the man for the job.

“So is she gorgeous or what?” said Phil. “Let’s give it a go. You first.”

“Me?”

“You.” Phil shoved Andy through the door.

“That’s a bit harsh,” I said.

“Nah, he’s got to learn,” said Phil.

We followed Andy in and studies the sandwiches, which gave Andy some space but placed us close enough to hear the falter in his voice as he ordered a coconut macchiato. He said no more while the barista turned away to make it, and paid with a mumbled thank you. He turned to us as if waiting for Phil to tell him where to sit.

Phil marched Andy to a table and sat him down. I sat with them.

“What was that? How’re you going to close it if you start by ordering a muppet drink like that?”

“I tried to make eye contact like the Magnet told us,” said Andy.

I glanced at the barista to see what she was making of this. She was wiping the next table with her face turned away.

Phil noticed her at the same time I did. “Keep it down, she’ll hear us.”

“Yeah, well, she turned round to the coffee machine. The Magnet didn’t tell us what to do when they turn round.”

“Muppet.”

I was getting a sense of what Phil’s favourite word was.

Phil turned to me. “Your turn.”

I looked round. The barista was back behind the counter, regarding us with what I’d have called a lack of interest until the Magnet taught us it’s called ‘resting bitch face’. Either way, it didn’t look like an invitation.

“Why don’t you show us how it’s done?” I asked Phil.

If I’d looked away, I’d have missed the uncertainty that flashed across Phil’s face. “You’re on. Watch and learn, my young apprentices.”

He marched up to the counter as if he’d just bought the place, and the barista with it.

“Hi there, Stacey,” he glanced at her nametag. “You look like you need your day to get better, so here I am.”

Resting bitch face stopped resting and took a form I would have called ‘suppressed laughter mixed with pity’. I thought back through the seminar, but I couldn’t remember seeing it in any of the Magnet’s slides so I didn’t have to rename it.

“What would you like?” she asked.

“You could make my day with a lovely cup of filter coffee.”

She turned round to pour it, so I couldn’t see her face after that.

“That’s a nice bum,” said Phil, “but you need a tighter skirt. You don’t quite have enough to fill that one.”

When the Magnet had taught us the art of negging, I wasn’t sure that was quite what he had in mind. Undermine an attractive woman’s confidence, he taught us, and up you go in her estimation so she’ll want your approval. I’d have thought Phil’s approach would be more likely to get a cup of coffee poured over him than Stacey’s phone number, but the Magnet had taught me a lot about women I didn’t know so perhaps Phil had the right idea.

If Stacey felt undermined, she didn’t show it. She finished pouring Phil’s coffee and placed it in front of him.

“That’ll be one ninety-five.”

Phil looked at her as if expecting her to say something else. Stacy looked back. Phil looked down and fumbled with his wallet, just as another barista emerged from a back room. The newcomer was dark where Stacey was blonde, but just as pretty.

She looked at Phil, looked at Andy and I, and looked a question at Stacey.

“Right on time,” said Stacey. “You missed a classic. This one thinks he’ll get me into bed by slagging off my bum.”

The dark newcomer laughed. I liked the sound of her laugh, which made me sad. I wanted to make her laugh by telling her a joke, not by being one.

“What d’you mean, or time?” asked Phil. “I’m not on a schedule.”

“Work it out, Sherlock,” said Stacey.

Phil looked around as if expecting to see the explanation written on the walls.

“Er, Phil?” said Andy.

“What?”

“Did you book online?”

“Don’t…” Phil dashed over to our table and hissed at Andy. “Don’t tell them where we been, you muppet.”

“They already know,” said Andy, not bothering to keep his voice down. “You saw the Magnet does the same session in the same place every week?”

Stacey and her friend smirked at us.

“You’re not as thick as you look,” said Stacey. “But you’d better spell it out to your mate. He hasn’t worked it out yet.”

“Right,” said Andy. “Well, this is the nearest café to where the Magnet does the session. So every week, someone’s going to come out of the session wanting a coffee and…”

He waved at Stacey and her friend, who were the first women a man would encounter if they wanted a coffee after the Magnet’s seminar.

“That’s why we call him the loser magnet.” The dark barista had an Italian accent. It was as sexy as her laugh. “Have they all tried it yet?”

“No.” Stacey pointed at me. “That one hasn’t tried yet. C’mon then, let’s see what you got.”

They both giggled.

I stood up and walked to the counter, feeling as if I was back at school and about to face an irate headmistress.

“I’ll just have a cup of tea,” I said. “To go.”

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Posted in Story development

The pontifications go irregular

 

Notification

(Bernard Spragg. NZ [CC / Flickr])

On the high note of the squabble over the morality of coffee in Restoration-era England, I now declare that I will no longer be pontificating to a weekly schedule. They’re a lot of fun to research and write, but I’m finding they’re cutting into time I’d need for other writing projects.

Anyone who knows me will know that it takes more than that to stop me from pontificating, so I’ll still be posting them as and when a subject seizes my attention and demands to be written about. Meanwhile, I’ll continue the Saturday Hooptedoodles as normal and I’ll be serialising another story starting on Monday.

I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Posted in Notification, Wednesday Pontification

Inspirations: The gendered war on coffee

  • In 1674, a ‘women’s petition’ denounced the craze for coffee in England.
  • It claimed that it lured Englishmen away from ale and rendered them impotent and effeminate.
  • The men’s response declared that Englishmen were so virile that they all had gonorrhoea.

photo1

The cover of the women’s petition (Houghton Library, Harvard University [Wikimedia Commons])

Like most writers I know, I depend on my coffee. I start the day with coffee and I wouldn’t be writing this now without the whiff of arabica.

I am also a man, so it was a little alarming to read that coffee was once accused of rendering men impotent, to the great frustration of their wives:

The Excessive use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE, which Riffling Nature of her Choicest Treasures, and Drying up the Radical Moisture, has so Eunucht our Husbands, and Cripple our more kind Gallants, that they are become as Impotent as Age.

Help!

A Well-Willer’s warning

As I gathered from the language, the claim was not made in the modern medical literature so I began to breathe a little easier. It was in fact made in the Women’s Petition Against Coffee published in England in 1674. It was not a petition in the modern sense, written with the intention of collecting signatures, but a pamphlet distributed to present an opinion. The anonymous author, identifying herself as ‘a Well-Willer’, does not pull her punches. She spends paragraph after paragraphs decrying the insidious effect of coffee on sexual performance. A newlywed woman, flush with anticipation, is bound for disappointment in a land of men emasculated by the ‘base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking, nauseous Puddle-water’:

She approaches the Nuptial Bed, expecting a Man that with Sprightly Embraces, should Answer

photo2

An agent of Frenchification? (Nic Taylor [CC / Flickr])

the VIgour of her Flames, she on the contrary should only meat A Bedful of Bones, and hug a meager useless Corpse rendred as sapless as a Kixe, and dryer than a Pumice-Stone.

I would be very grateful if anyone can tell me what a ‘kixe’ is, though the gist is clear enough.

In case the accusations of impotence failed to carry her point, the author condemns coffee as a foreign perversion, railing that Englishmen ‘should Apostatize from the good old primitve way of Ale-drinking, to run a whoring after such variety of distructive Foreign Liquors’:

To our unspeakable Grief, we find of late a very sensible Decay of that true Old English Vigor; our Gallants being every way so Frenchified, that they are become meer Cock-sparrows, fluttering things that come on Sa sa, with a world of Fury, but are not able to stand to it, and in the very first Charge fall down flat before us.

The Turkish enchantress

As if it’s not bad enough that coffee renders an Englishman impotent, the ‘ugly Turskish Enchantress’ goes on to make him French!

The enchantress doesn’t stop there. Not only does she stop men performing as men, she renders them so like women that they usurp the women’s monopoly on meaningless

photo4

Who is out-babbling whom? (Adam B [CC / Flickr])

chatter:

Men…usurp on our Prerogative of tattling, and soon learn to exceed us in Talkativeness: a Quality wherein our Sex has ever Claimed preheminence: For here like so many Frogs in a puddle, they sup muddy water, and murmur insignificant notes till half a dozen of them out-babble an equal number of us at a Gossipping, talking all at once in Confusion.

It is surely a sign of the end times when men out-babble women.

Well-Willer concludes with an exhortation that the men of England cease to ‘run the hazard of being Cuckol’d by Dildo’s’ and return to the ‘to the good old strengthening Liquors of our Forefathers’.

Coffee against the king

What should we make of the pamphlet and its authorship? If someone wanted to put men off coffee, then equating it with a loss of masculinity would be a good way of going about it. Perhaps the author owned a pub.

Or perhaps there was a political bent to the whole thing. The crown did not sit comfortably on the head of King Charles II, who had been returned to the throne after the Restoration

photo5

Portrait of King Charles II by Peter Lely, probably some time in the 1670s. Was he behind the women’s petition? (Thomas Gun [Wikimedia Commons])

put an end to England’s experiment in republic. There was still a powerful Whig faction in Parliament, who believed England would be better off if Charles returned to exile in France. Suspicion of monarchy as an institution was not helped by Charles’s lack of an heir and by 1674, the near certainty that the crown would pass to his brother, who would in fact become King James II (of England) & VII (of Scotland) in 1685. Worse than being a coffee-drinker, James was a Catholic in a land of militant Protestantism.

Charles’s reign was beset by fears of conspiracies against him, not always unfounded, and Charles feared that many such conspiracies were hatched in the newly fashionable coffee houses of London. Some ten years before, he had tried to have coffee proscribed entirely but failed to get the law through Parliament. Perhaps Well-Willer was a royal propagandist, trying to drive men away from coffee houses through fear for their manhood where the legal approach had failed.

The virtue of venereal disease

Any attempt to push a committed coffee-drinker away from their favourite brew is hazardous, so it’s no surprise that Well-Willer was answered in no uncertain terms. Shortly after the women’s petition was circulated, a reply followed in The Mens Answer to the Womens Petition against Coffee, vindicating their own performances and the vertues of that liquor from the undeserved aspersions lately cast upon them by their SACNDALOUS PAMPHLET.

The author remained similarly anonymous but, rather disappointingly, did not share Well-

photo6

The cover of the men’s answer (Houghton Library, Harvard University [Wikimedia Commons])

Willer’s talent for simile. He shows the affront we would now associate with a mis-spelled comment posted beneath an online news article on any issue related to gender, albeit tempered by a sense of humour. He pulls no punches from the beginning:

Could it be Imagined, that ungrateful Women, after so much laborious Drudgery, both by Day and Night, and the best of our Blood and Spirits spent in your Service, you should thus publickly Complain? Certain we are, that there never was Age or Nation more Indulgent to your Sex; have we not condiscended to all the Methods of Debauchery?

In case the Englishman’s erotic ardour is in any doubt, the author cites his constant bouts with sexually transmitted disease:

Is he thought worthy to be esteemed a Gentleman, that has not seaven times pass’d the Torrid Zone of a Venerial Distemper.

Not only does the coffee-drinking Englishman keep his wife well satisfied, but he has energy to spare for ‘a Brace of Mistresses’. In fact, he appeals to the prostitutes of London as an authority on the insatiable carnal desire that keeps them in work:

We dare Appeal to all the Commissioners of Whetstones Park, the Suburb Runners, and Moorfields Night-walkers, if ever they had better Trading.

The insufferable din of your ever-active tongues

He then gets somewhat carried away, insisting that coffee is such a stimulant to the libido that the coffee houses must themselves provide an outlet for the impulses they stir:

There being scarce a Coffee-Hut but affords a Tawdry Woman, a wonton Daughter, or a Buxome Maide, to accommodate Customers.

photo6

The Turkish enchantress has outruled King Charles II in England (Jonas Tana [CC / Flickr])

Not a statement to support the argument that the wives of England shouldn’t worry about their husbands visiting coffee houses, but then he goes on to claim gonorrhoea as a mark of sexual achievement so the point is rendered moot.

As for the babbling, why should a man not enjoy conversation in a coffee house when he can’t get a word in edgewise at home?

You may well permit us to talk abroad, for at home we have scarce time to utter a word for the insufferable Din of your ever active Tongues.

Well-Willer had been thoroughly told.

Whoever was behind the Women’s Petition and the reply, it’s evident that both authors had their tongues in their cheeks and did not intend to be taken entirely seriously. They may have known each other, though the allusions in the women’s petition are longer and more wide-ranging than in the men’s so they don’t look as if they were written by the same author.

Meanwhile, I will take my chances and drink another cup of coffee.

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Posted in Inspirations, Wednesday Pontification

The Scent of Sea and Nectar

TheScentOfSeaAndNectar

(Gareth Lovering Photograph [CC / Flickr])

It came back to me last week, when I was wheeling my chair between crocuses and daffodils. They’re hardly unusual flowers. They come out every spring. This spring, I happened to be visiting our grandchildren and I could hear waves rolling over shingle from their garden. It’s a beautiful spot, my love, right on the coast.

You remember what it reminded me of, don’t you? Your memory always was better than mine.

Don’t worry, I’d never forgotten that weekend in the boarding house in Scarborough, where we snuck away to squander my first paycheck. I can’t remember what the place was called, but I remember the way old Mrs Donahue sniffed when we signed in as Mr and Mrs Smith. That woman made the most watery tea either of us have ever drunk. We never did decide whether she was punishing us for bringing sin across her threshold or if she was simply a tea bag miser.

We had to stifle our laughter whenever she was in the same room as us. That glare of hers could curdle milk, but it couldn’t spoil that weekend for us.

What I had so unforgivably forgotten was our walk along the clifftop, with the North Sea rolling along the beach below us while spring flowers bloomed around our feet. The scent of sea and nectar were the perfect backdrop to that weekend. I will never understand how they slipped my mind.

The moment the memory returned to me, I knew I’d be bringing you crocuses and daffodils on my next visit. Please accept them as my apology for the memories leaking out of this decaying vessel that contains them.

Your memories haven’t faded, have they? For you, every day you lived is as fresh as if it was only yesterday. That’s what I choose to believe. I’ll know soon, because this vessel doesn’t have much decaying left in it. Soon, I will be lying beside you, and we can share our memories again.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle, Uncategorized

The Casual Conjurings of Perchance to Dream

CoverCasualConjuringsWhat would happen if a Second World War Spitfire pilot found himself in the ancient Greek underworld? That was the starting point for Perchance to Dream, which became my first published short story. That was longer ago than I care to remember now, but it remains a story I remember with particular fondness, so I’m delighted to say that it’s been given a new lease of life in the Casual Conjurings anthology published by Digital Fiction Pub. Not only that, but they’ve also republished Perchance to Dream as a standalone.

Many thanks to Michael Wills at Digital Fiction Pub for taking it on. There are Goodreads pages for both Perchance to Dream and Casual Conjurings, and I’ve posted a preview and author’s notes for Perchance to Dream on this site.
As so often happens, I’m honoured to share pages with such accomplished authors. The table of contents is:

Bitter Water by Julia August

CoverPerchance to Dream by DJ Cockburn

Rindelstein’s Monsters by David Tallerman

Songs for the Lost by Brian Rappatta

That Which is Hidden by Julie Frost

Lost in the Tarnished Cube by Thomas K. Carpenter

The Grammarians’ Grimoire by E.E. King

Salt and Sand by Kate O’Connor

What Now, Callisthenes by Christine Lucas

The Most Remarkable Experimental Filmmaker the World Has Ever Known by J.J. Steinfeld

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Posted in Publishing news

Non-fiction Review: The Pigeon Tunnel by John Le Carré

thepigeontunnelI discovered John Le Carré in Bangkok’s Chatuchak Market. I picked out a battered paperback Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy from a tiny used book stall. It looked as though it had been round Southeast Asia in a few backpacks, but the broken spine and multicolour stains didn’t stop me devouring over a Saturday away from work.

It introduced me to the murky Cold War of George Smiley and his adherents, who murder and betray each other for purposes that none of them ever appear able to articulate. Since then, I’ve followed Le Carré and his characters through the end of the Cold War (Single & Single, The Secret Pilgrim) to the law-skating businessmen who filled the gap it left behind (The Night Manager, The Constant Gardner) and into the global war on loosely defined terror (Absolute Friends, A Most Wanted Man).

I find his novels far superior to most thrillers, not only because his characters are deep and nuanced but because they were so much more vivid than anything they rub covers with in the bookshop. They also offer a commentary on the contemporary world. I first became aware of the upheavals in the Caucasus when I read Our Game, which described the Ingush opposition to Moscow some time before the upheavals in neighbouring Chechnya became frontline news.

Yet David Cornwell, the man behind the John Le Carré penname, has always been difficult to pin down. In an age when publishers push authors into the spotlight, Le Carré doesn’t give many interviews and doesn’t give much away in them. It’s no secret that he worked for MI6 in the 1960s but he’s never said much about it. I wanted to know how he came to write the novels that had taken me around the world’s trouble spots so I couldn’t wait to read his own account.

Like the writer that he is, and perhaps the former spook as well, Le Carré is a ghostly presence in his own story. The Pigeon Tunnel is more a collection of anecdotes than a coherent memoir, and he gives far more space to the roles of other people in his life than his own. Some are good people, such as Sir Alec Guiness who played George Smiley in the TV adaptation of the Karla trilogy. Some are not so good, such as a Russian gangster who Le Carré briefly spoke to in a Moscow nightclub. Some are diabolical, such as Rupert Murdoch. Most, like Le Carré’s fictional characters, are described with too much nuance and sympathy to be so neatly described.

For me, the most interesting stories involved the pursuit of his own novels. He describes his horror at visiting Hong Kong in the days before Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was issued and discovering a tunnel to Kowloon that he hadn’t known about. It wouldn’t have made much difference to the novel, but he became so determined not to make such a mistake again that he spent his middle age visiting the parts of the world that most of us would pay a fortune to stay away from. He was writing The Honourable Schoolboy at the time, which is set in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. Putting action to resolution, he talked a journalist into letting him on to a flight to Phnom Penh in Cambodia to watch the Cambodian army’s last ditch defence against the Khmer Rouge.

I most appreciated the chapters describing his pursuit of what became The Little Drummer Girl, from a clandestine prison in Israel to dancing with Yasser Arafat in a refugee camp to watching the ‘Nocturnal Orchestra’ of firefights from the presidential suite of Beirut’s best hotel, traditionally given to new guests who didn’t realise how exposed it was.

If there’s anything missing, it’s any account of his own time in MI6, which he refers to with great self-deprecation and no detail. The only direct reference to it is through his conversations with Nicholas Elliott, who was simultaneously one of the most accomplished secret agents Britain has ever admitted to, one of the greatest dupes of defector Kim Philby and in Le Carré’s words, a man ‘who looked like  A P.G. Wodehouse man-about-town, and spoke like one’. Yet he only describes his acquaintance with Elliott after they had both retired from MI6. Perhaps his training ingrained discretion into him so firmly that it’s lasted longer than most of the countries he might have been spying on, or perhaps it’s simply his personality.

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Posted in Book review: non-fiction, Wednesday Pontification

A Childhood Memory

achildhoodmemory

(Jean-Pierre Declemy [CC / Flickr])

Sometimes, my friend, you think you want to know about a person but when you do, you wish you didn’t. So I’ll tell you what you think you want to know, but don’t blame me if you end up wishing you didn’t know it.

You think it’s all about my childhood. Me, I think you’ve soaked up too much Freud but as you’re asking nicely, I’ll try you with a childhood memory:

I’m walking down a street, pushing a pram.

You want to know where this street is?

I don’t know. It could have been Crewe or Milton Keynes or Abergavenny-y-Fenni for all I can remember. I pushed that pram down streets in all of them. It was a street. Let’s just go with that.

My sister’s walking next to me, holding my hand. She’s wearing a plain white dress, not a speck of dirt on it. Me, I’m in jeans and a T-shirt that don’t fit and look like they’re about to fall to pieces.

That’s not accidental. If you see an eleven-year-old boy and a seven-year-old girl walking down a street, maybe you look twice and maybe you don’t. If the girl looks like a bridesmaid at a cheap wedding and the boy looks like he hasn’t had a bath in a week, I guarantee you’ll look twice. Then you’ll see my baby brother in the pram and you’ll start asking yourself questions.

Every head on the street turned toward us. Most turned away before they answered their own question. Most people want to think they’re good guys, but they don’t want to get involved with other people’s problems. They knew that if a good guy answers the question we’ve planted in their minds, he can’t go on walking past. If they want to walk past and be a good guy, they have to look away before they think about it.

Psychology, see? It’s not about how long you were in nappies or how you remember your mum’s boobs. It’s about who you are and who you want to think you are, and what you’ll do to cross the gap between them.

Being the good guy is much harder than pretending to yourself that you are the good guy, so hardly anyone does it. Hardly anyone isn’t no one. There’s always someone sooner or later.

It would be someone who didn’t have to be anywhere in a hurry. I’d guess they were usually retired, but then I was eleven. Everyone over thirty looked ancient to me.

On the day I’m talking about, it was this nice old lady. The usual sort, with a kind smile and a gentle voice asking if we were lost, poor dears. She actually said that: ‘poor dears’, like she thought she was Mary Poppins.

I kept schtum. Pulled my sister closer to me like we were scared, and tried to push the pram round her. We had the moves down. It makes them wonder what must have happened to make us so scared of a nice old lady, which makes sure a nice old lady won’t let it go.

It worked, like it always does. Her mouth was still smiling but her eyes were frowning as she asked us what our names were and if I knew my address.

My brother started howling then. Even at one-and-a-half, his timing was perfect. I followed his lead and yelled for help. My sister did her bit, turning on the waterworks. Between us, we were making enough of a racket to make it really difficult to walk past and still tell yourself you’re the good guy. Some people were still looking and looking away, but plenty were slowing down, wondering what was going on.

That’s when mum came storming in. No one saw where she came from because everyone was looking at us, or deliberately not looking at us depending on how good they were at lying to themselves. No one noticed she’d been on the same street the whole time.

She marched up to the nice old lady, screaming about what she was doing to her babies. I was holding my sister, who was making as much noise as my brother. Noise, that’s the key, noise and drama. Give everyone enough of a show that they don’t wonder why a mother who is screaming about her babies has hardly looked in their direction.

Now came the clever part. Somehow what starts with mum yelling that the nice old lady was hurting her babies would always end with the nice old lady emptying her purse. After it happened, the nice old lady wouldn’t be sure exactly what she’d paid for, she’d just be happy that was over so she could go and recover over a cup of tea. The truth is, I don’t think mum knew exactly how she did it either. She just worked the situation until the nice old lady thought coughing up the cash was the only way to avoid getting dragged down to the local copshop as a childsnatcher.

But you asked me for a memory, so I’m not talking about how it worked. I’m talking about this one day. In fact, we’re talking about the last time we did it because when the nice old lady reached into her handbag, it wasn’t a purse that came out, it was a warrant card. Maybe she wasn’t so old after all.

I didn’t know what a warrant card was back then, but mum did. She scarpered, and that was the last any of the three of us have ever seen of her.

So now you know that my skills, the ones you’re trying to understand, weren’t things I learned because I was brought up in care. I had them before I went to my first foster family. You also know why you’re not sure how you came to put that fifty quid in my hand, but if you’ve been paying attention – proper attention – you’ll understand why your best move now is to cut your losses and leave it where it is.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Inspirations: Riding the bomb to Saturn

  • The nuclear pulse drive would power a spacecraft with a series of nuclear explosions.
  • Project Orion, led by Freeman Dyson, planned a four-year round trip to the moons of Saturn.
  • After Orion was abandoned, pulse drive has led to several concept studies.
  • It has only flown as a prototype using conventional explosives.

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Artists’ impression of Orion spacecraft with Saturn in the background, 4ms after a propellant bomb is detonated (NASA [Wikimedia Commons])

A spacecraft the size of a Second World War cruiser speeds across the solar system to Saturn, riding the blast waves of a succession of nuclear bombs. It sounds like a dream of the future and indeed it has periodically appeared in science fiction. In Footfall, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle sent their heroes into space on a bomb-powered battleship to take on an alien spacecraft menacing the earth. In Ark, Stephen Baxter found a less warlike use for the technology, using it to launch an enormous spacecraft carrying refugees from the food engulfing the earth.

In both novels, the characters adopt nuclear pulse drive because they have a pressing need to operate spacecraft too big to be powered by a rocket, but they only have contemporary technology to work with. Therein lies a clue that however futuristic it appears, the nuclear pulse drive concept is not a progression of rocketry but was originally developed in parallel with it. It never got beyond the concept stage, but it’s hard to read Footfall or Ark without wondering whether, beneath the elephantine aliens and mysterious floods, the authors are pointing us at what could have been and indeed, what could still be.

The glimmering of an idea

The concept of the pulse drive goes back to the very first nuclear bomb test, in the Nevada

photo2

Stanislaw Ulam, who first conceived nuclear pulse drive, in 1945 (Los Alamos National Laboratory [Wikimedia Commons])

desert in 1945. The bomb was detonated on top of a 200-foot tower, which everyone assumed would be vaporised by heat as intense as the surface of the sun. In fact, the tower was blown to fragments and scattered around the desert. It occurred to Ted Taylor, one of the Manhattan Project engineers, that if the power of the blast could be harnessed and directed, a force of destruction could be turned into a force of propulsion.

It was Stanislaw Ulam who developed the pulse drive concept in a series of papers, many of which are still classified as they were part of the American nuclear weapon program, but summarised in a 1955 paper he co-authored with CJ Everett. The paper describes an interplanetary spacecraft powered by successive nuclear blasts, carrying a smaller, more manoeuvrable rocket-powered spacecraft that could be released it its destination. Far from the advanced Alcubierre drive that provides the second stage propulsion in Ark, Ulam and Everett envisaged the second stage being a V-2 rocket: the first vehicle ever to leave the earth’s atmosphere.

In 1958, pulse drive became more than an idea that physicists kicked around in their spare time. The year before, the Soviet Union had launched the Sputnik satellite and the USA was, rather belatedly, flinging resources into a space race that they had started from well behind their rivals. Taylor approached Freeman Dyson, then working at Princeton, and brought him in to lead ‘Project Orion’ at General Atomics.

Project Orion

Much of what we now know about Orion now is due Project Orion, written by by Dyson’s son George, which was summarised in a BBC documentary on the subject:

Dyson and Taylor knew that the problems they faced were formidable, but then Dyson has been described as ‘one of the few true geniuses I’ve ever met’ by Arthur C Clarke, which is high praise indeed. They also knew that they would be able to recruit the best nuclear physicists and engineers in the USA. Many of them had worked on the Manhattan Project and disliked working on weapons of mass destruction. As Dyson put it:

Nobody liked the mass murder aspect of bombs but nevertheless, they loved playing around with

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Test of the first successful hydrogen bomb, ‘Ivy Mike’, at Enewetak Atoll in 1952 (The Official CTBTO Photostream [CC / Flickr])

bombs. So this was a way of having your cake and eating it too, that you could be playing around with bombs but not be killing people, to be exploring the universe.

The first problem they faced was that while their colleagues working on rocketry were trying to squeeze more energy out of liquid or solid fuel, Project Orion had to deal with the fact that an atom bomb produced far too much energy. Taylor’s observations of the bomb test tower led them to place a steel or aluminium ‘pusher plate’ between the explosion and the spacecraft, and they found that a large enough plate could absorb successive nuclear blasts.

Going large to slow down

A bigger problem was that Ulam and Everett’s paper describes a spaceship accelerating at around 10,000g, which is similar to the acceleration of an artillery shell in the barrel of a howitzer. Even if they could design a spacecraft that did not collapse at that acceleration, a human crew could not survive it.

The first solution was to damp down the acceleration with a large spacecraft. They envisaged Orion weighing 8000 tons at launch, which is about two and a half times the weight of the Saturn V that was still a twinkle in Wernher von Braun’s eye. A key difference was that while the Saturn V used nearly all of that mass to get a mere 50 tons of payload into an orbit that intersected the moon, Orion would carry several hundred tons of payload beyond the earth’s gravity well and to a planet of the team’s choosing.

They found that they could design shock absorbers to spread the acceleration, reducing it to a level that a human body could survive. At the same time, the military was developing

photo4

View of earth from the orbit of Saturn, photographed by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft in 2013 (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center [CC / Flickr])

nuclear devices small enough to be fired as artillery shells. As it was envisaged, Orion would lift off on a succession of 1,000 0.1kt bombs, and then accelerate using 20kt bombs once it was clear of the earth’s atmosphere.

On paper, Orion could launch an expedition to the moons of Saturn and return in four years. To put that into context, that’s a similar timescale that is currently imagined for a manned mission to Mars using chemical rockets that have yet to be invented, over several times the distance.

Putt-putt

What the team needed was to move the project off paper and into practice. They started small with a prototype lifted by conventional explosives. To build it, they approached a man whose wartime experience had been less backroom and more front line than most of them: Jaromir Astl had learned his expertise with explosives as a saboteur with the Czechoslovakian resistance. With Astl on the team, they flew several models of what they called the ‘putt-putt’ on a succession of conventional explosives:

Commenting on the lack of safety protocols and the enthusiasm for explosives, Dyson says:

We were a bunch of crazies in a certain way and it was certainly an unusual time when crazy people were actually given a chance to do their stuff.

The putt-putt showed that a vehicle could be powered on a controlled trajectory by a series of explosions but due to political rather than engineering constraints, a few hundred feet off the ground would be as far as pulse drive would ever go. When NASA was inaugurated in 1958, it had not taken on Project Orion because as a civilian agency, it could not work with a project in which so much remained classified. Project Orion fell under the auspices of the US Air Force so to the frustration of scientists who were existed by space exploration, it needed a military justification. Ideas became progressively more outlandish, including an orbital battle station, or ‘death star’ as the scientists call it in the documentary, and the placement of an enormous nuclear doomsday device over Russia. If

photo5

Freeman Dyson in 2006 (Esther Dyson [CC / Flickr])

detonated, it would rip much of the atmosphere off the northern hemisphere. Perhaps someone had watched Doctor Strangelove and taken entirely the wrong message, or perhaps it was simply the logical conclusion of deterrence based on mutually assured destruction.

Death Starred to death

This was not what Dyson, who never wanted to do war work again after he had helped Bomber Command optimise the mass slaughter of German civilians, had in mind. At the same time as he was working on Orion, he was one of the architects of the Partial Test Ban Treaty that came into force in 1963. It restricted nuclear testing to underground sites, where they could not throw radioactive dust into the atmosphere. In doing so, it prevented the launch of a spacecraft that depended on letting off nuclear bombs in the atmosphere and beyond.

At around the same time, a model of the ‘death star’ was presented to President John F Kennedy who, fresh from his game of nuclear chicken now known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, vetoed it to avoid starting a nuclear arms race in space.

Dyson himself was not unhappy with the decision, if only because the team had never resolved the problem of containing radioactive fallout. The launch of one spacecraft would increase the earth’s radiation level high enough to cause between one and ten deaths by cancer, which was not acceptable to Dyson.

For better or worse, Orion was dead. As Arthur C Clarke summed up:

The idea’s not crazy. The idea that we might do it might be crazy.

We’re left with only the idea of what might have been:

Daedalus to Barnard’s Star

The idea of nuclear pulse drive has never gone away and continues to resurface from time to time. One of the more serious incarnations was Project Daedalus, a concept study by the British Interplanetary Society in the mid-1970s. Unlike the government-funded Project Orion, Daedalus was the brainchild of an informal group of enthusiasts in their spare time. Enthusiasts they may have been, but they were not amateurs: Daedalus was led by Alan Bond, who had worked in the British Blue Streak ballistic missile program and was then working on research into nuclear power.

Project Daedalus set out to design an unmanned probe that could reach Barnard’s Star, 5.9 light years away, using technology that was feasible in the immediate future. The propulsion system used a refinement of nuclear pulse drive: rather than detonating bombs under it, Daedalus’s engine would fire small quantities of deuterium and helium-3 into an electron beam. The resulting nuclear fusion explosion would be small enough to be

photo6

Artist’s impression of Daedalus approaching Barnard’s Star (Adrian Mann)

contained inside a reaction chamber, making it much more efficient than Orion, which only made use of the part of the explosion directed at the pusher plate.

Bond’s team calculated that they could accelerate a 54,000-ton spacecraft to 12% of the speed of light, getting it to Barnard’s Star in 50 years. On arrival, it would not slow down but would deploy 500 tons of scientific instruments to transmit data back to earth.

The idea never went further than the BIS’s papers, and they seem to have taken a rather liberal view of what constitutes feasible technology. As helium-3 is very rare on earth, they planned to mine it from Jupiter using robots with balloons, raising the whole other problem of harvesting and transporting resources between planets.

Daedalus has proved as persistent an idea as Orion. The BIS keeps it current with its follow-up project, inevitably called Project Icarus, which is still current.

Friedwardt Winterberg’s mininukes

Yet another variation on the theme was suggested in 2005 by Friedwardt Winterberg, whose earlier nuclear research had provided the starting point for Daedalus’s engine. He suggested ‘mininukes’ as a more feasible alternative to Daedalus’s helium-3 based fusion. Interestingly, his paper describes exactly the combination of small amounts of expensive uranium and plutonium and larger amounts of cheap high explosive that Dyson says should be classified in case it becomes an instruction manual for terrorists.

Winterberg’s mininuke contains a core of as little as 2g of uranium or plutonium contained in a sphere of 50kg high explosive. It would deliver the kick of around five tons of TNT, which would accelerate 1,000 tons to around 500km/h. No conventional rocket fuel comes close to that, but Winterberg says it’s still small enough that it could be contained in a parabolic reflector, harvesting more of the energy than Orion could have done by

photo7

Could pulse drive take our species out there? (Kartik Ramanathan [CC / Flickr])

riding the edge of an expanding sphere of energy. He suggests it may be possible to scale down the mininukes even further, so they could be contained inside a closed chamber as was envisaged by Project Daedalus.

Winterberg also deals with the fallout problem: most of the energy would be released by fusion rather than fission, which does not release radioactive by-products. It’s not possible to completely eliminate the fission component of the reaction but if the fallout were to prove unacceptable, the spacecraft could be lifted into orbit with conventional rockets and the mininukes used for the interplanetary journey.

Over the last 60 years, pulse drive has received attention from some of the leading aerospace and nuclear engineers in the business but it’s never flown higher than Project Orion’s putt-putt. There is a new wave of interest in space research at the moment, led by Elon Musk’s plans for establishing colonies on Mars and Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough Starshot project for sending probes to Proxima Centauri. The time is ripe for another resurgence of interest in nuclear pulse drive and who knows, perhaps this time we’ll get to see it fly.

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