Non-fiction Review: The Trigger by Tim Butcher

TheTriggerSarajevo, 28th June 1914: a bullet passed through the jugular vein of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the empire of Austria-Hungary. A second bullet struck his wife, Duchess Sophie of Hoehnberg. She fell into his lap. He begged her not to die and assured his companion, Count Harrach, that ‘it is nothing’ moments before he and Sophie died in each other’s arms.

And Europe burned.

The baroque structure of alliances, non-aggression pacts, ententes and armed truces that had kept the European peace for sixty years collapsed like a pack of cards, unleashing a conflagration that scorched the entire world.

Two world wars and a prolonged nuclear standoff later, journalist Tim Butcher was introduced to a Sarajevo that was still burning as it was besieged by a Bosnian Serb militia. During a lull in the shelling, Butcher discovered, in a building being used as a communal latrine, the tomb of a Bosnian Serb called Gavrilo Princip. The man who fired those two bullets.

The name of Princip is familiar to schoolchildren across Europe, but Butcher discovered that little is known about the man himself. He appears for a momentous few moments of history, only to vanish back into obscurity. So Butcher returned to Bosnia to seek out a man who had lived and died a century earlier, and who had defined the lives of so many who weren’t even born at the time with his one action.

Butcher started at Princip’s birthplace of Obljaj, where his family still inhabit the house he was raised in, and where a wall still bears the initials that young Princip scratched into it. Butcher hiked in Princip’s footprints to his college in Sarajevo, where his initial academic excellence faded with poverty and then by his radicalisation as a militant Slav nationalist.

Princip’s story is highly relevant today. He was a member of a marginalised minority who saw little place for himself in the world, so he turned to violent nationalism. His motivations were much the same as those described in Maajid Nawaz’s Radical, which chronicles his own path into radical Islamism in modern Britain.

By 1914, the 19-year-old Princip was willing to kill and to die to resist Austrian hegemony. In the event, the killing was easier than the dying. His arrest probably saved him from being beaten to death by the crowd and as he was under 20 at the time of the shooting, he was spared hanging and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Ironically, Princip’s treatment doesn’t support his view of the Austro-Hungarian empire as a heartless tyranny. Most modern courts would consider 20 years a very light sentence for a double pre-meditated murder, especially of two such prominent victims. Not that it did Princip much good; he died of tuberculosis four years later.

The Trigger is simultaneously a travel memoir and a work of history. As he hiked through Bosnia, Butcher discovered that Princip is not venerated by the people he believed he was sacrificing himself for. In a country where the divisions between Muslim Bosnians, Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs have dominated so bloodily, Princip’s brand of inclusive Slav nationalism and opposition to a largely forgotten empire has little resonance.

As he follows in the footsteps of Princip, Butcher treads ground that was torn apart by nationalistic antagonism during the Second World War until it was reined in by Marshal Tito, only to explode again when the communist government collapsed. Butcher revisits places he himself reported on with the benefit of knowledge he didn’t have at the time, such as the secret tunnel under the UN safe zone at Sarajevo airport that was used to supply the defending forces.

It’s a travel book chronicling a travel through history as much as through Bosnia, telling the story of Princip’s short, rather sad life and of the century of bloodshed he unleashed with his one bullet.

Tagged with: , , , , , , ,
Posted in Book review: non-fiction, Wednesday Pontification

Under the Hooked Cross – 7: Henkel

Previous instalments: 1 2 3 4 5 6

Under the Hooked CrossHenkel’s face was still pale, but Silversmith saw a brightness in his eyes that could have been excitement or welling tears. Henkel’s gaze turned away from the Reich and toward the pod that MacFadyen had called “secret.” Interesting. As an SS officer, Henkel was privy to secrets that were kept from Silversmith.

“You know Max, I never realised how impressed I’d be by this station.”

“I agree. The dominion of the Reich reaches to the stars.”

Silversmith recognised a quote from one of Heydrich’s speeches. He was sure Henkel’s political correctness was a defence against a lonely young man trying to rise to the surface. What did the SS do to its people when it trained them?

“So you’ll be broadcasting on the Party’s own channel? Quite a responsibility.”

Henkel seemed to swell with pride. “I am confident that I will fulfil my duty.”

Henkel’s gaze wandered back to the secret pod. Silversmith wondered how Henkel had ended up in communications. It wasn’t a particularly prestigious job by SS standards, though it was a necessary one since the SS had taken over foreign reporting from the Ministry of Public Enlightenment. Then again, the Penguin’s communications officer had the task of broadcasting directly to the Party channel, which every television in the Greater Reich had to be able to receive. It wasn’t a trivial responsibility for a 26-year old Obersturmführer.

“Do you have anyone to miss down there?” Silversmith nodded at the Reich. He wondered how he could talk to the young man without talking to the Obersturmführer.

“Not really. My family is proud of my posting and I’m not worried about them.”

“They sound like good people.”

“My father was in the original Hitler-Jugend. He was with the Waffen-SS in the Middle East and Russia.”

Silversmith heard pride in Henkel’s voice but little affection.

“Sounds like a lot to look up to.”

Henkel’s face tightened. The Obersturmführer was seizing control after letting it slip for a moment. “I will do my duty as he did his.”

Next week: Beerkellar

Full story available from Amazon in Kindle format.

Author notes


Cover by Manda Benson

These 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 and Mars One.

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Under the Hooked Cross



The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken up, 1838 by JMW Turner (National Gallery of Art [Wikimedia Commons])

“She’s a beauty.” I pointed at the tug.

“She’s filthy,” said Elizabeth. “She’s all black. She looks as if she’s wearing a gown of her own smoke.”

My sister was two years older than me and when she didn’t have her nose in a book of poetry, she made it her business to ensure that no statement I made stood without contradiction. For once, I did not join the argument, though my restraint owed more to my fascination with the revolution of the tug’s twin paddles driving her toward us than to sound judgement.

“Sidewheeler,” I said, proud to know the word.

“A filthy sidewheeler.” Elizabeth pressed home her attack, encouraged by my want of enthusiasm for joining the battle. “What think you, Miss Wycroft?”

“I think you are both quite correct.” Our unfortunate governess was forever trying to mediate bickering that made the Schleswig-Holstein question appear as easy to reconcile as the question of whether to take tea at eleven o’clock or half past. “But you must say ‘what do you think’, not ‘what think you’. We are not characters in a Restoration drama.”

“I like the ship behind.” Elizabeth ignored Miss Wycroft’s attempt to digress.

I looked behind the tug, which was turning away from us to follow the convolutions of the River Thames. “Just an old wooden hulk.”

Now that Elizabeth had found a cause to champion in opposition to my own, I was honour bound to enter the lists against her.

He doesn’t think so.” Elizabeth pointed to a man whose grey hair hung loose around his face as he scribbled frantically in a sketchpad.

“He looks quite mad to me,” I said.

“Hush, master,” said Miss Wycroft. “You mustn’t say such things.”

“Yes, hush,” said Elizabeth.

If the scribbling man had heard us, he did not look up. He was captivated by either the tug or the hulk, or perhaps both.

“And he’s looking at the wooden ship as well.” Elizabeth pointed at a man who doffed his flat cap as the tug swung out of the way of the ship.

Although it was a Wednesday, the was wearing the trousers and jacket of a working man at church. When he revealed his bald head, I could see he was even older than the man whose hands still flew across his sketchpad.

I had to own that the hulk was large enough to impress, and her three rows of gunports spoke of the devastating broadsides she had once hurled. She was like an aged pugilist, old and feeble but still wearing the memories of more glorious days.

“Old and smelly,” I said, “and she’ll be firewood by the end of the week.”

Whatever private thoughts I entertained, my colours were firmly nailed to the funnel of the tug.

I must have spoken louder than I intended because both the watching men looked at me. The sketching eccentric stared, spat the syllable ‘bah!’ at me andreturned to his pad.

The working man regarded me for a moment, then turned back to the river.

Miss Wycroft was still trying to make peace between brother and sister. “It’s not the ship that smells. It’s the river. The river always smells.”

I did not reply, not because of what Miss Wycroft had said but because I was looking at the working man’s back. There was a dignity in his movements that struck me silent, as if he wore some of the past glory of the hulk he had come to see.

“Only because of all the smelly steamboats in it,” said Elizabeth.

My mouth remained closed, allowing her the laurels for that day. I was watching that man as he knuckled his forehead to the hulk, and wondering what he saw that I did not.

Tagged with: , , , , , ,
Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

The but balance of critiquing

  • Most critiques take the format of positive-but-negative.
  • Most critiquers make sure they include positive points even if they can’t find any.
  • Different writers will give different amounts of attention to the positive and the negative.
  • The writers that pays most attention to the negative will improve fastest.


(Stephen D [CC / Flickr])

“I enjoyed it,” says the critiquer. “I liked your characters, and I really liked the part where the cat turned out to be an agent for the evil emperor, and I loved the way the protagonist distracted it with catnip while she escaped down the clothesline.”

The writer smiles shyly.

“And the dialogue rocked,” continued the critiquer. “The fusion of Chaucerian vocabulary and Jamaican patois gave it something truly unique.”

The critiquer clears her throat. “But…”

The defining syllable

If you’ve sat through a few critique sessions, you’ll recognise the moment that defines how useful this critique will be to the writer. Based on having given, received and observed literally hundreds, and possibly thousands, of critiques both in writing and face to face, I’ve noticed that the balance of what comes before and after that syllable, ‘but’, defines how useful the critique will be.

Most critiquers use the format of our critiquer above, whether or not they have the same taste in quirky storytelling. She starts by talking about what she liked about the story, then she says the critical word ‘but’ and goes on to talk about the things that didn’t work for her. How much the writer gains from the critique will depend on how both he and the

gani and astrid trying to play swing

(Ramil Sagum [CC / Flickr])

critiquer balance the content on either side of that word.

There are good reasons for using the ‘positive but negative’ format. However experienced we are, we all enjoy being told that someone enjoyed our writing. To a novice who isn’t sure of themselves, a little positive feedback can be the reason why they knuckle down to improve their writing rather than throwing up their hands in despair after running the critiquing gauntlet. For a more experienced writer, knowing what elements of a story are working and should be left alone is as useful as knowing what isn’t working and what needs to be changed.

The balance of the critiquer’s but

It doesn’t follow from there that the ratio of words before and after the ‘but’ is a measure of how good the story is. The but balance depends more on the critiquer than the story being critiqued. If we’re joining a critique group, it’s because we’ve done enough writing of our own to know how much effort a writer pours into a story. Tall tales of the critiquer from hell who sets out to crush the spirit of her fellow writers abound on the internet, but


(Francisco Osorio [CC / Flickr])

my experience is that she is a rare species who sets more eyes rolling with amusement than shedding tears of despair.

Most critiquers who try to spare the writer’s feelings by stacking up as much pre-but content as possible, and by phrasing it in far more definitive terms than her post-but comments. The good news for our writer above is that this critiquer probably genuinely likes his story and is not just trying to spare his feelings. He can safely conclude that because she’s being specific about what she liked. If she’d just said she liked the characters and left it there, she may well have meant ‘your characters didn’t suck quite as badly as everything else about the story, though I’d struggle to come up with anything in particular that I liked about them’.

When a critiquer can’t find anything else they liked, they sometimes comment on the mechanics of the writing. If she’s talking about a lack of spelling and punctuation errors as if it’s a major achievement, the writer has some serious rethinking to do.

Sweetening the pill

Having invoked their ‘but’, most critiquers become considerably more tentative in the way they phrase their comments. When the critiquer read the manuscript, she may have jotted down a note saying:

ZERO logic to clothesline from sixth floor window to ground, obvious ex machina, WTF!!!

When she expresses that to the writer, she softens the blow by phrasing it as her own opinion and adding a layer or two of hedging:

I didn’t really understand how anyone would hang clothes on a line from a sixth floor window. It doesn’t seem very practical somehow, but perhaps that’s what they do in Auckland. I wouldn’t know, I’ve never been there.

An inexperienced critiquer or just someone new to this group, is likely to balance any comment like that with a positive pre-but comment, which is why critiquers are sometimes reduced to complimenting writers on comma placement to balance their


(Laurie Hulsey [CC / Flickr])

criticism of clothesline placement.

A more experienced critiquer is likely to be more gentle with an inexperienced writer or a newcomer to the group than with someone she knows will appreciate criticism and suggestions. I reserve my most robust critiques for people whose writing I admire greatly, because I know they are more interested in where their work can be improved than in being encouraged, and because I know they will appreciate thorough but constructive comments.

As the but balance depends far more on the critiquer than the story, it is no indication of how good the critiquer thinks the story actually is. For that, the writer will need to focus on what she’s saying.

Balancing the writer’s but

While the critiquer’s but balance depends on how much they say and with what emphasis on either side of the ‘but’, the writer’s but balance depends on which side of the ‘but’ he pays most attention to. Let’s consider two writers who our critiquer might be talking to, the complacent writer and the self-critical writer.


(machfive [CC / Flickr])

Faced with the critique above, the complacent writer will soak up her compliments and then tune out everything after the ‘but’. Who cares if the clothesline makes no sense, he thinks, when she liked my evil cat, and promptly forgets about the clothesline problem.

When the critiquer hedges her comment about the misplaced clothesline by saying she didn’t understand, the complacent writer hears her admitting to a limited understanding rather than hearing a gentle reminder of the logistics of laundry drying.

When the critiques have finished and the beer is flowing, the complacent writer is likely to talk about artistic integrity. If there’s a new member, he’ll tell them they shouldn’t worry when it’s their turn to be critiqued because a critique is only an opinion. He’ll hold forth about how he wouldn’t accept having his manuscript edited by a publisher – if he ever gets anything accepted for publication.

What he’s actually doing is shoring up his complacency and replacing his memory of all the post-but comments with the mantra he uses to disregard them.

After he’s been critiqued a few times, the more experienced critiquers will become less thorough with him, not out of concern for his bomb-proof sensibilities but because they’ll see him making the same errors over and again and realise he’s just not listening.

Focus on the post-but

The self-critical writer will smile and nod until the word ‘but’, then he’ll whip out a notebook and start scribbling. He knows people feel obliged to put something before the ‘but’, so he doesn’t trust it although if someone mentions something that they particularly liked, he’ll know that’s something not to mess with. He’s interested in the post-but comments because that’s what he needs to improve his story. When the critiquer mentions the sixth floor clothesline, he’ll recognise her hedging for what it is, slap his forehead and wonder how he could have been so silly, then thank her for pointing it out.

Head in Hands

(Alex Proimos [CC / Flickr])

There’s a good chance that the self-critical writer’s first reaction to the critique will be to be paralysed by self-doubt. He’s self-critical because his writing is nowhere near as good as he wants it to be, and receiving a barrage of critiques at once is overwhelming however many times you go through the process.

But his self-doubt hasn’t put him off writing before and it’s not going to put him off now. He’ll shake it off and dig his notes out, and then he’ll edit the hell out of his story. As he’s doing it, he’ll be absorbing the specific points into more general principles that he can apply to his next story. Not only will the sixth story clothesline will have disappeared from the next draft of that story, but the next story he writes will have every household fitting will be in a logical place.

The newcomer’s view

If you were new to the group and didn’t know the personalities and dynamics of the members, you’d notice a lot more post-but comments directed toward the self-critical writer than the complacent writer. That’s not because the group feels there’s more to criticise; there probably isn’t. It’s because the self-critical writer lets them know he appreciates the time and effort they spend on their critiques, however bruised he might be feeling in the immediate aftermath, while the complacent writer makes them feel they’re wasting their breath.

Over time, the group will notice a steady improvement in the self-critical writer’s work. It’s immensely satisfying to watch a talented writer develop into a skilled writer and to feel they’ve contributed in some small way, so they’ll be motivated to devote time and attention to critiquing his work.

Hang around writing groups for any length of time and you’ll meet both the complacent and the self-critical writer, though most of us fall somewhere in between the two extremes. Most writers have aspects of both, and often move closer to one or the other depending on how they feel that day. The trick, if we can master it, is to take on the


(Taylor Robinson [CC / Flickr])

approach of the self-critical writer without the paralysing self-doubt. Unfortunately, that’s a trick I can’t tell you how to pull off.

If you’re in a writing group, do you recognise any of this? If you have tales to tell, please share them in the comments.

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in Wednesday Pontification, Writing

Under the Hooked Cross – 6: Dublin and Jerusalem

Previous instalments: 1 2 3 4 5

Under the Hooked CrossSilversmith found his gaze drawn to a corner of the Mediterranean where sea met desert. A memory of his father’s voice echoed in his mind. May my tongue cleave the roof of my mouth if I forget thee, if I prefer not Jerusalem over my chief joy. His father had given up his dream of tending orange groves in Palestine, but had longed to visit it one day.

Silversmith found wondered if he might have had the chance if only Adolf Hitler hadn’t suddenly gone toes up back in 1940.

He might have actually gone ahead with his crack-brained scheme to invade Russia with the Brits still on their feet. In fact, if Hess hadn’t redirected the whole plan toward the Middle East and forced Britain to make peace by flattening every army that was still fighting, the Yanks would have been dragged into Europe. Germany would have lost the war. The Brits wouldn’t have lost their Asian colonies to Japan and elected a fascist government in disgust with everyone else. Ireland would still be a free republic, and Dad could have seen Jerusalem.

Silversmith shook his head, hearing his father reply in his Lithuanian accented Dublinese. Sure and you have to send an Irish Jew into space as a card-carrying Nazi to get crazy ideas like that.

Silversmith’s father had died before Ireland was annexed back into the United Kingdom, which had at least spared him from being shipped off to starve in Madagascar with the rest of the Jews. And let you hide the fact that you’re half Jewish yourself, don’t forget that. You have to be a party member to work at Peenemünde, and us kikes don’t get past the door.

Thanks for reminding me, Dad. And thank God for the poor sods who tried to make a stand in the public record office and got it burned down around them.

He jumped at the sound of breathing behind him. He pivoted to see Henkel. Damn, he never used to be this nervous.

“Good day, James,” said Henkel. “The majesty of the Reich is breathtaking, isn’t it?”

Silversmith nodded. “Extraordinary.”

Next week: Henkel

Full story available from Amazon in Kindle format.

Author notes


Cover by Manda Benson

These 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 and Mars One.

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Under the Hooked Cross

In Search of the U-bend


(Margaret Darms [CC / Flickr])

When my wife was explaining it, something didn’t sound quite right. I’d never heard of a plumber looking for a U-bend in a wardrobe. But there had to be some explanation for why he was poking around my wife’s jackets and dresses.

She hadn’t mentioned a problem with the plumbing, but then I leave looking after the house to her. It’s makes sense when I work a seventy-hour week. I once came home to find she’d had the living room wallpapered in some ghastly shade of pink. I didn’t say anything of course. She’s the one who’s stuck in the house all day, and what’s the point of working those hours if she can’t make it the way she likes it?

I have to give her credit, she doesn’t complain about it. I’m sure she deals with dozens of things she doesn’t bother me with. I only knew about the plumber because I left my phone behind and when I came back for it, I heard the wardrobe sneeze. I opened the door and demanded to know who he was and what he was doing, and that was when my wife told me about the U-bend. He smiled and nodded like he was happy to leave the explaining to her. I don’t think he spoke much English, poor fellow.

It was all a terrific nuisance for my wife of course, as she’d been in the middle of getting dressed to meet with the ‘ladies who lunch’, as she calls her friends. I’ve never understood why they dress themselves up to the nines, let alone how, but then a man’s wife should hold a little mystery for him, don’t you think? It stops a marriage getting staid.

The plumber arrived while she was in the middle of her complicated dressing ritual, so she’d thrown on her dressing gown and couldn’t get dressed properly until he’d finished searching our bedroom for that wretched U-bend.

I joined the hunt and we found it under the kitchen sink in the end. I’d have thought that would be the first place a plumber would look, but then he was foreign and perhaps they plumb differently wherever he’s from. I’m sure he knew what he was doing because by the time I got home from work, the plumbing was working perfectly.

Tagged with: ,
Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Greater Minds: Ronald Knox and the prankster’s rules of the detective story

  • In 1929, Ronald Knox published ‘decalogue’: ten rules of writing a detective story.
  • Knox was a priest, a crime writer and a satirist.
  • He’d already invented retcon and caused a national panic with a parody radio broadcast.
  • Knox probably didn’t mean his rules to be taken as seriously as some people still do.

Ronald Knox in 1928 (Ronald Knox Society of North America)

In 1929, the Catholic chaplain of Oxford university laid out ten rules of writing a detective story:

  1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
  2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
  3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
  4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
  5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
  6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.
  8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
  9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
  10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

If you’re smiling at the rules, their author would probably have been pleased. Ronald Knox was not the dependable, rather dull clergyman who features so often in the detective stories he was talking about. He was himself an enthusiastic writer of detective stories and wrote his ‘decalogue’ in the preface to Best Detective Stories of 1928-29, which he edited.

McDermid on Knox

Strange as rules such as a prohibition on ‘Chinamen’ may appear at first glance, the rules do in fact list a number of devices that were and remain in common use, and which


Val McDermid in 2013 (Fenris Oswin [CC / Flickr])

detective writers were apt to use to hastily fill plotholes. Besides, even a passing acquaintance with the exotically devilish Chinese men who frequented the detective stories of the 1920s would lead a modern reader to agree with Knox that the stories of the era were better off without them.

It’s hard to know how seriously Knox’s Decalogue was taken at the time, though Val McDermid, one of today’s leading crime writers who has previously featured as one of my greater minds, thinks they were taken quite seriously. In a panel discussion for BBC Radio 4’s Open Book, she said:

We read them now and we laugh at them but when they came out, writers took them very seriously …now I have read crime novels that break all of those with gay abandon so I think these days as the genre transforms itself and continually reinvents itself, I think nothing is off limits, there are no rules.

Host Mariella Frostrup then asked Abir Mukherjee whether he’d read the decalogue, and I suspect that the playful tone of his response was closer to what Knox had in mind:

I did, which was a shame because my first novel was going to be about a dreaming Chinaman.

The invention of retcon

When assessing how seriously Knox intended to be taken, we should consider that he was an irrepressible humourist. He published theological arguments in the style of Dryden or Swift as the mood took him and in 1911, he wrote an essay suggesting that Sherlock Holmes died with Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls, and his resurrection and subsequent


The game’s afoot, said Knox (dynamosquito [CC / Flickr])

adventures were no more than Watson’s drunken imaginings.

It was an early gambit in what would become known as the ‘Sherlockian Game’, in which Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are analysed as historical documents. The Sherlockian Game is probably the first example of what is now known as the ‘retcon’, in which a particular canon can be altered by retroactively applying facts to early instalments, either by the creator of the canon or more playfully by the fans.

Conan Doyle himself was not amused and wrote a four-page rebuttal to Knox. Perhaps the detailed analysis of inconsistencies between the stories irked him, or perhaps it was the criticism of some of the more fantastic plots.

Knox suffered from the curse of many satirists in that his parodies were often taken more seriously than he intended.

Bring on the Bolshevists

In January 1926, the BBC radio service broadcast Knox’s most notorious parody, Broadcasting the Barricades. As described by journalist Paul Slade, Knox read his own script, pretending to be reporting on a revolution consuming London led by one Mr Popplebury, Secretary of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre Queues.


(Delete [CC / Flickr])

The program was prefaced with a statement that it was fictional, and contained such gems as Mr Wotherspoon, minister of the non-existent department of traffic, being caught while trying to escape in disguise and hanged from a lamppost. After much prevarication and apology over possible inaccuracy, Knox admitted that the BBC had got its facts wrong and Mr Wotherspoon had in fact been hanged from a tramway post.

The action rose to a climax as the rioters descended on Broadcasting House, broke down the doors and then settled down to read copies of the Radio Times in the waiting room.

In spite of the disclaimer, the absurd names and the unlikely calming effect of the Radio Times, the BBC was bombarded with telephone calls begging for updates on what was evidently a bolshevist rising.

In an age when we’ve watched the Houses of Parliament demolished on film almost as often as the Statue of Liberty and the Golden Gate Bridge, it’s difficult to imagine people being taken in by an obvious parody. However, radio was a new invention at the time and the BBC usually confined itself to reading out unedited reports from Reuters. There was no tradition of radio as a medium for drama. This was less than a decade after the Russian Revolution and there was a bitter and ongoing dispute between the Trade Union Council


(PhotoAtelier [CC / Flickr])

and the owners of Britain’s coal mines, which would bring the country to a halt with a general strike a few months later.

Further, listening to the radio was not the straightforward process of pressing a button and sitting back with a cup of coffee that it is today. The signal was unreliable, and words were often lost in interference or as a listener pursued it across the wavelengths by adjusting the dial.

The Daily Mail responds

The broadcast took place on a Saturday and made the front pages of the Sunday papers, most of which weren’t delivered until the Monday due to a heavy snowfall. Anyone who had taken the broadcast seriously endured another anxious day before receiving the newspapers reporting it as a joke.

Many papers went much further than simple reporting. The Daily Mail apparently shared the mortification of the many people who had telephoned its office asking for information:

The callers were in a state of excitement and demanded to know what was happening in London…Was it true that Big Ben had been blown up? Had the National Gallery been sacked? Were the


(Kat Northern Lights Man [CC / Flickr])

Government calling on loyal citizens? Many refused to be reassured. ‘We have heard it on the wireless,’ they declared. ‘Why, we have even heard the explosions!’

Ninety years ago, the Daily Mail enjoyed the chance to bash the BBC as much as it does today.

The Express quoted a former MP who revelled in a name worthy of Knox’s broadcast, Leo Chiozza Money:

The item was utterly humourless. The BBC should be ashamed of having included it in their programme.

A joke for a Scotsman, a terror to an Englishman

The Weekly Scotsman expressed more glee in the broadsheets’ reaction than in the broadcast itself:

Scottish people apparently saw the joke without need of surgical operation.

While the Irish Times took a more cautionary position:

The BBC will be wise if, in future, it takes no risk with its public’s average standard of intelligence.

A look at this week’s television schedule suggests the BBC may have taken the Irish Times’s advice a little too much to heart.


spite of the newspapers’ reactions, it would probably be misleading to assume that Knox threw the entire country into a state of panic. The BBC received around ten times as many letters of appreciation as of complaint, and much of the criticism came from privately owned newspapers with a vested interest in criticising the recently-established public service broadcaster that was carving out a dangerously large niche in the news market.

Neither Knox nor the BBC were deterred from further spoof broadcasts, although Knox devoted most of his efforts to his writing and his ecclesiastical duties, which included sermons that he said should be like a woman’s skirt: ‘short enough to rouse the interest, but long enough to cover the essentials’.

Interpreting a prankster’s rules

Which brings us back to his rules of detective fiction and whether he meant them, or whether other writers took them, as seriously as McDermid seems to think. While the tone is clearly satirical, Knox probably had a serious purpose behind them. When an editor


Rules (melissa jonas [CC / Flickr])

produces a list of rules that list things not to do, he’s usually listing things he’s seen too often. If Knox mentioned twin brothers, we may infer that they’d had been pushed to the front of his mind by what he’d been reading, which further implies that they had become something of a cliché.

As McDermid says, the genre continually develops and reinvents itself so that something that was a cliché in 1929 may be forgotten and ready to reappear looking fresh and original in 2016 – as long as it’s not a device used to cover up poor plotting. McDermid might laugh at the rules, but none of her novels that I’ve read have used undiscovered poisons or devices that require lengthy scientific explanations.

So perhaps the way to treat Knox’s rules is to laugh at them, but also to consider where they came from and not to break them without due consideration.

Or do you have a different idea? If so, please share it in the comments.

Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Greater minds, Wednesday Pontification

Under the Hooked Cross – 5: Disorientation

Previous instalments: 1 2 3 4

Under the Hooked CrossOn the other side of the pod, a corridor branched toward an octagonal capsule with large windows facing up and down, at least from Silversmith’s orientation. He looked down. A sapphire and emerald disc shone back at him. “Where..?”

MacFadyen pointed. “That way’s north.”

The picture fell into place and Silversmith recognised central Africa. He exhaled slowly.

“Always best to see it first at night, but if I can distract you for a wee moment?” MacFadyen was smiling. “The last bit of your orientation is to show you the Penguin from the outside, or rather as close to outside as you ever hope to get.”

Silversmith looked up and saw that he was surrounded by a ring of silver pods poised between Earth and stars, each circled by a red band with a white disk containing the hooked cross.

“Don’t mind the swastikas,” said MacFadyen, “old von Braun raised hell about the weight of the paint but the enlightenment ministry insisted — you don’t win arguments with Fräulein Riefenstahl. Then they had to have the same row over the pictures in the canteen. Anyway, eight pods. Canteen, observatory, communications, hydroponics, Luftwaffe and scientists’ quarters, SS quarters, docking and spacewalk, secret.”

“Secret?” Silversmith hadn’t heard about that.

“Secret. So don’t ask because I don’t know.”

“No idea at all?”

“Plenty of ideas, the best being that it’s best not to know. Now moving on, the solar panels are outside the pods where you can’t see them, and that little beauty,” he waved at the docked shuttle, “is my ticket home. So if you don’t mind I’ll leave you to the view and go and pack.”

Silversmith breathed a quiet sigh of relief. MacFadyen’s joy at going home reminded Silversmith that he had three months on this sardine tin ahead of him, and nothing but the Gestapo-patrolled corridors of Peenemünde to look forward to after that. At least the locker room smell of men who couldn’t wash more than twice a week wasn’t too bad in the octagon.

He turned to look at the Earth. The northward leg of the Penguin’s orbit slid the green of equatorial Africa from under him and replaced it with the ochre of the Sahara. He could see a substantial slice of the Earth’s surface, and all of it belonged to the Reich. From poor old Ireland in the west to Persia and the Urals in the east, from the North Cape to Cape Town in the south, the Reich and its vassals took the taxes and made the laws.

Next week: Dublin and Jerusalem

Full story available from Amazon in Kindle format.

Author notes


Cover by Manda Benson

These 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 and Mars One.

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Under the Hooked Cross

The Fence and the Rhino


(Magnus D [CC / Flickr])

“So what you got for me?”

Friendly face, neutral voice. Eric had found it such a useful way to start a deal that he’d grown a beard to hide his expressions.

A lot of the youngsters he dealt with could do with a lesson in neutrality, but none more so than Simon, who was grinning at him across the table as he said, “you’re gonna like it, Barbie.”

Barbie as in barbed wire as in fence. London loved nicknames but Simon didn’t know it was one of those nicknames that people used about someone rather than to them. Simon didn’t know a lot.

Eric replied with a carefully neutral grunt.

“So, you gonna offer me a pint?” Asked Simon.

“On Sunday morning?” Eric exchanged neutral of scandalised. “I run a respectable, law-abiding pub. I can’t go breaking the Sunday trading laws by selling alcohol on a Sunday morning, can I?”

Simon frowned. Eric could see when realised Eric was talking about charging for the pint he expected for free. Tough. Only Eric’s more profitable contacts got to do business over free pints, and Simon had a lot of work ahead of him before he qualified.

“So you buy knock-off on Sunday morning, but you’re law-abiding ’cause you don’t sell beer?” Simon had caught up at last, or at least come as close to catching up as he was likely to.

“If I could sell beer, I’d open the pub, wouldn’t I? I can’t buy no knock-off when I’m pulling pints for my punters, can I?”

“Oh. Right.” Simon was still frowning.

Eric didn’t mind a bit of digression. People came to him with a plan for how the negotiation would go, and digression distracted them from it. Simon, however, had never formed a plan in his life. The problem wasn’t so much distracting him as keeping him from forgetting why he was there in the first place.

“Let’s have it, then,” said Eric. “It better not be another load of cassette players. I still don’t know what you expected me to do with them. Put them in the TARDIS and sell them in nineteen eighty-five?”

“No, no, it ain’t that.”

“And no more toasters with European plugs on, neither, like last week. People round here have sockets with three pins, not two.”

“No!” Simon was on the defensive now, which was where Eric wanted him. There was still a slim chance he’d got something worthwhile this time.

“Well then?” Eric spoke like a man tired of waiting.

“Right.” Simon opened his sports bag and placed an off-white object shaped like a blunt cone on the table.

Eric folded his arms. “What’s that? A marble statue’s dildo?”

“A what?”

Eric rolled his eyes. “What is it?”

“Rhino horn,” said Simon. “Thirty grand a kilo in Vietnam, and that’s three kilos. I weighed it.”

“Are you winding me up?”

Behind his cynical tone, Eric was interested. They’d been talking about rhino horn on the news the other night, and Simon must have been taking a break from Scandi porn or the cartoon channel or whatever he normally watched because that price was about right. He’d never shifted rhino horn before, but he knew everyone in London worth knowing. Someone would know someone who wanted it. He wouldn’t get thirty grand a kilo, but it was worth more than the usual phones and tablets he handled. A lot more.


With Simon, there had to be an ‘if’.

“Where’d you get a rhino from?” Eric asked.

“What you want to know that for? Thought you didn’t wanna know where stuff comes from.”

Eric sighed. “If it’s a box full of toasters, then I don’t want to know what lorry it fell off the back of. And if they’ve got European plugs, I can work out for myself that it was stacked up near Dover because the French were on strike again, am I right?”

Simon looked down. Eric was right.

“But I never heard of no lorryloads of rhinos dropping their horns off the back,” Eric went on. “So I want to know. Where’d it come from?”

Simon pressed his lips together that he drove the blood out of them.

Eric stood up. “Well, if you’re going to sulk, we’re done.”

“All right, all right. I got it at the Natural History Museum.”

“You what?”

“Natural History Museum. In South Kensington.”

“Yeah, I heard, but…you nicked the horn off the rhino in the Natural History Museum?”

Simon grinned. “What do they expect? It’s just sitting there, waiting for someone to -”

“I know, I took the kids there last month. They loved the whales hanging from the ceiling. But what were you doing in a museum?”

“The whales are well cool. Everyone’s looking up at them so I can go through their handbags. I never stop thinking about business, me. I should be on The Apprentice. So I got a couple of phones, but then I see the stuffed rhino and I think to myself, Simon mate, that’s real money, that is.”

“And then you looked at the wall behind the stuffed rhino,” said Eric.

“What? Why?”

“To read the sign on it. You can read, can’t you?”

“Course I can!”

“Good. So what did it say on the sign?”

“What sign?”

“The sign that says it’s not a real horn in the stuffed rhino.” Eric flicked a fingernail against the horn on the table. “That sound like rhino horn to you? That’s plastic, that is.”

Simon’s frown was back. “How’d you know what rhino horn sounds like?”

“It’s plastic. Learn to look around you before you nick anything. How you haven’t been locked up yet, I’ll never know.”

“Plastic.” Simon looked devastated, then he pulled his expression into firm lines of resolution. “You’re having me on, that’s what you’re doing. You just don’t want to pay for it. Well I’m not having it. I nicked it fair and square and I want a fair price for it.”

Eric sighed. “Take the horn with you. I’m not the only fence in London. See who else’ll have it.”

“I will.” Simon snatched the horn off the table as if he was expecting Eric to grab it first. “I’ll take it to Raghead Rashid.”

“You do that. Make sure you call him that when you get your horn out. That’ll get you a good price.”

Simon’s attempt at a glare made him look likely to burst into tears.

“Something to say?” asked Eric.

Simon turned on his heel and marched to the door.

“And don’t come back until you got something worth my time,” said Eric.

Simon slammed the heel of his hand against the door, intending to fling to open ahead of him. The door opened inward so he marched into it and cracked his forehead. “Ow!”

He yanked it open and marched out.

“Muppet,” said Eric.

Tagged with: ,
Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Fiction Review: Bosman at his Best by Herman Charles Bosman

CoverMy mission to become better read in short fiction continues with the recommendation of a friend: Bosman at his Best is a collection of the works of Herman Charles Bosman. I hadn’t heard of him until my friend mentioned him, though it didn’t take me long to wish I had. Bosman’s gently satirical writing took me to the Transvaal of the early 20th century, mainly through the fictional reminiscences of the venerable Oom Schalk Lourens; raconteur supreme of South Africa’s equivalent of America’s Wild West. Other stories take a detour from the wide open spaces of the veldt to the confines of Pretoria prison, following Bosman’s own reprieve from the death sentence and subsequent ten years of hard labour.

Like Hemingway’s early stories, Bosman’s stories present slices of the lives of his characters with little or no explanation. He leaves it to us to judge their foibles and idiosyncrasies, and to decide whether or not we’d like them – or whether they would like us.

For Bosman doesn’t romanticise his characters. In his stories, there is very little love lost between the ‘Boer’, the ‘Kaffir’ and the ‘Rooinek’, although they often learn respect for one another. My own favourite is Funeral Earth, which brings in all three of the enemies determined to lay claim to the red earth by staining it redder with one another’s’ blood.

Like the best of his stories, Funeral Earth combines humour and tragedy in a very few pages. It’s simultaneously a very intimate story showing the outlook of a farmer, and the story of the making of the country of South Africa.

He died in 1951, at the age of only 46, at the beginning of the Apartheid era. This collection left me wondering what he would have written about that time, or indeed today’s South Africa, had he lived longer.

Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Book review: fiction, Wednesday Pontification
Follow Cockburn's Eclectics on

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 418 other followers


The Lure of Books

High Wing Red

Lizzie and Mule

Falcon Touchdown

Flying Schoolroom

Maggie Come Home


Tiger Maroon

Comet in Red

More Photos