Caresaway is coming: advance readers requested

coverWould you take a pill that made you a success?

Would you still take it if it made you a psychopath?

Those are the questions that Edward Crofte will wrestle with when Caresaway is published as a standalone novelette on 4th January. If you think a story of a psychopath running a pharmaceutical firm might be your thing, the good news is that the publisher, Annorlunda Enterprises, are offering electronic copies to anyone who offers to write a review. An Amazon review is fine, though we’d appreciate Goodreads, your blog if you have one and anywhere else that springs to mind.

To be clear, I’m asking for an honest review. I am NOT asking for a good review. No one will hold it against you if you think it needs trashing, least of all me.

If you’re interested, please message me through my contact page and I’ll send you the link to the (very brief) request form.

If you’re not sure whether it floats your boat or not, have a look at the preview below:


Edward Crofte strode through the door marked ‘CEO’ without knocking. He’d been looking forward to doing that for a long time. He stood in the middle of the room until Anthony D’Olivera looked up from the papers he was packing into a box.

Back in the bad old days, Edward would have been able to interpret D’Olivera’s expression instantly. Now he was less certain, but as long as he could see defeat, he knew all he needed to.

“Come to mark your new territory?” D’Olivera’s Cape Flats accent, normally no more than a hint in his vowels, was clear even to Edward’s English ears.

Edward strolled to the plate glass window where he looked down at Buitengracht Street, carving through Cape Town toward the cloud pouring off Table Mountain like some impossibly huge waterfall. An open-topped Maserati turned left out of Buitengracht on to Strand Street. With his CEO’s salary, he’d be able to afford one for himself. Or at least persuade the bank to extend his credit far enough.

“Come on, Anthony,” he said. “It’s not like that. Most of our profit comes from Caresaway, so you can’t blame the board if they think you’re holding up the marketing.”

Edward didn’t look around, but he could feel D’Olivera’s eyes on the back of his neck.

“And Caresaway’s your baby, right?” asked D’Olivera.

“Well yes, actually, it is.” That might have been a gloat too far. “Though of course, it was you who brought it on board. And me with it.”

“Hm.” D’Olivera’s single syllable carried years of regret. He couldn’t know the detail of the boardroom alliance Edward had built against him, but twenty minutes ago he’d felt the result in the no-confidence vote.

“We’re in the middle of a global recession, Anthony. We need to make the most of our one blockbuster product.”

“So you said in the board meeting. Repeatedly. But does it bother you that the product may be why we’re in the middle of a global recession?”


Author notes

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Posted in Publishing news

Greater minds: Lauren Beukes on writing the other

  • Lauren Beukes wrote an article on writing diverse characters.
  • She described the reading and conversation she used to research Zoo City.
  • To write a character from a different culture or subculture, we need to vicariously experience it.
  • It would be ideal to have a cultural critique, but it’s not always possible to find someone to do it.


Lauren Beukes in 2012 ( [CC / Flickr])

If cast an eye around this site, you’ll have gathered that I read a lot. Books, articles, blogs, stick some words in front of me and I’ll probably sit there until I’ve read them. The downside is that my memory can’t always keep up with my intake, so only a few things I read leave a lasting impression on me. One novel that did was Zoo City by Lauren Beukes, which I read a few years ago. I can still remember Zinzi December’s quest for the truth through a Johannesburg in which magical creatures sharpened the commentary on modern South Africa.

Last year, I had the honour of being published in the iconic Year’s Best Science Fiction anthology. Dizzy as I felt at getting in at all, there were several authors who I was particularly dizzy to be sharing pages with, one of whom was Beukes. I’d just read her next novel, The Shining Girls, at the time and when I got the chance to read Slipping, the story about a dangerously likely direction for athletics to take that was in that anthology, I could only hope my story didn’t let the anthology down.

On Zinzi December

The protagonists of both Zoo City and Slipping, Beukes’s protagonists were very different characters, but what they had in common was being young black South African women, which led her to describe the process of writing the ‘other’ for the World SF blog.

As ever with my greater minds posts, this is a set of thoughts inspired by what Beukes


The 2011 Clarke Award winner, Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City (Mark Simpkins [CC / Flickr])

wrote, and I’m not trying to repeat or reply to it. Please have a look at her much more concise writing on the subject. I’m calling her a greater mind for a reason.

I’m not usually nervous when I start writing one of these posts, but this subject does it: anything that touches on identity politics risks bringing out the worst of the internet but it’s an important subject so I’ll take my chance, if only because so many of my own protagonists are very different to myself. If I only wrote protagonists like me, I’d have got bored of writing long ago. The protagonist of Beside the Dammed River, the story published in that anthology, was a Thai man several decades older than me. So far, no one has complained that I portrayed him inappropriately, but I’d rather avoid the accusation for future characters as well.

Beukes starts with the obvious point that any fictional character is ‘other’, in that they are not us:

Unless you’re writing autobiography, any character you write is going to be The Other.


Contemplating the Other (Kim Seng [CC / Flickr])

But that’s not really what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about the authentic portrayal of someone with very different life experiences than our own. Even if we create a completely fictional culture, our characters’ experiences are likely to reflect experiences of real people in the real world. If we don’t portray them authentically, someone who knows better than us is going to lose their suspension of disbelief when they read it. That alone is a good reason for getting it right, but it can also lead to being slated by reviews or on social media for being insensitive.

Subculture and culture and superculture

If the ‘other’ is someone with life experiences we do not share, then we have to accept that many of those experiences are derived from their culture. Culture is something of a fractal concept, in that the closer you look at it, the more complicated and harder to define it gets, but let’s at least try to come up with a working definition.

Most of us have a set of memories that we share with essentially similar people and shape a shared set of attitudes and opinions that we may subscribe to or reject. A culture is made up of overlapping subcultures. Everyone in the culture will be a member of several of those


Subculture or superculture? (Ron F. [CC / Flickr])

subcultures, but not all of them. Further confusing the issue are what we may call supercultures that span members of many different cultures.

Supercultures are nothing new, but access to them has always depended on how well connected someone is. Thanks to the internet, the number of supercultures available to us has exploded in recent years, and they tend to influence but not displace cultures rooted in the geographical and social groups we inhabit.

If I use the example of a woman I knew a few years ago in The Gambia, she described herself primarily as being Gambian Wolof. Hence her mother tongue was Wolof and her religion was Islam, both of which brought with them a set of beliefs and cultural practices. However, she was also educated to high school level, which brought with it a command of English and a certain amount of knowledge that placed her in the subculture of educated Gambians, which she shared with her Mandinka, Manjago and Aku classmates, who spoke different mother tongues and, in the latter two cases, were Christian. She was also an enthusiastic member of an online superculture she was passionate about: Aresnal supporters’ club.

Every subculture, culture and superculture is made up of people with individual


Individuals make up a culture (Zoi Koraki [CC / Flickr])

personalities, that are themselves defined in unpredictable and undefinable ways by gender, sexuality, region, genetics and, for all we can be sure of, probably shoe size and eye colour.

Cultural conversations

We can gather a lot vicarious experience of different personalities without going out of our way to find them, and we can use that experience to write different characters. Unless we go out of our way, our vicarious experience will be limited to people who share the same cultures (sub or super) as we do. That won’t stop us writing characters from other cultures, but the limits of our experience will make it very unlikely that we’ll get them right. We’re going to have to take that step out of our way.

As Beukes says:

The only way to climb into that experience is to research it, through books or blogs or documentaries or journalism or, most importantly and obviously, talking to people.

As an introvert and worse, an Englishman, the idea of spending ‘a week just walking round Hillbrow and talking to people’ is terrifying. That’s not because I lived in Cape Town long


The best way to understand a culture (DJ Cockburn [CC / Flickr])

enough to absorb the capetonian conviction that Johannesburg is one step removed from a war zone, but because I didn’t live there long enough to dislodge my own cultural indoctrination that taught me you don’t just walk up to someone and start babbling at them.

So it’s with some reluctance that I admit Beukes’s point. Conversation is the best way to access experiences other than our own. The written word can only go so far, even when people write about themselves. Very few writers can resist a bit of self-curation, subconsciously or otherwise. The same problem arises if we simply ask someone to tell me about their culture or subculture. When talking about the mores of their own culture, people often lead with the absolute ‘rule’ that is most often broken. They’re not being intentionally dishonest, it’s just that it’s at the front of their mind because there are constant arguments about it. Other mores that may seem more strange to an outsider and are more rigidly followed don’t get mentioned because people don’t give them much thought.

The only way to develop an understanding of such things is to get to know someone from that culture.

The hunt for the perfect critiquer

Beukes cites something else that I’ve found enormously helpful, which is being part of a writers’ group with a diverse range of experiences to tap into. When I wrote a Muslim


Johannesburg, the setting of Zoo City (Julian Schroeder [CC / Flickr])

protagonist that sparked off an argument about Islam among two Muslims in my own group, I knew I’d done something right.

There are limitations to depending on input from people who culture with my characters. It’s difficult enough to find critiquers without demographically profiling them. There is a big difference between a critiquer and a good critiquer. Horror stories abound of cultural dogmatists who say ‘no one from that background would ever do that’, though I’ve found you’re far more likely to hear that from someone talking about a culture they think they know about than from someone talking about their own culture. The more familiar you are with a culture, the more aware you are of the personalities that comprise it and the less homogenous it seems, so the less likely you are to believe no one would break its rules. Cultural transgression is central to a lot of fiction after all, though it only works if the characters acknowledge that there has been a transgression.


The Mekong River is not yet dammed (Jody Sticca [CC / Flickr])

As with any other aspect of critiquing, a far more common problem is that a lot of people are too polite to say when something is egregiously wrong. That’s why writers often make the best critquers: not because they’re any more insightful than anyone else, but they understand the value of honest and constructive critique.

For Beside the Dammed River, I was drawing on what I learned by working at Bangkok’s Kasetsart University some years ago. I talked to a lot of people, I learned Thai to a conversational level (and have since forgotten most of it) and I felt I came away with a passable grasp of the culture of at least the educated, urban sub-culture of Thailand. I did not, and do not, know any Thai writers I could ask for a critique, and I’ve lost touch with the friends I made while I was in Thailand. I had to decide whether I was confident enough to write the story without that feedback, and be prepared to take my lumps if someone noticed any cultural clangers after it was published. So far so good, though I have no way of judging whether that reflects a lack of clangers or a lack of readers.

Authenticity and universality

When talking about the authenticity of a character, we need to be clear that we’re not talking about universality. The differences between individual personalities within cultures is greater than the differences between cultures. Throw together a bunch of people from different cultures and watch most of them get on with each other and some form close friendships, while most of them will be able to name plenty of people from their own culture that they can’t stand. Cultural differences are rarely battle lines.

As Beukes says about Zoo City, developing a character is bound to require more work than placing a character in culture:


It’s all about doing this better (Lua Ahmed [CC / Flickr])

In the end, I think my question should never have been “Is Zinzi black enough?” but “is she Zinzi enough”? Because it’s not about creating one-trick ponies that reflect some quintessential property of what we think being Other is about. It’s about creating complex, deep, rich characters driven by their own motivations and shaped by their experiences.

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Posted in Greater minds, Wednesday Pontification, Writing

Under the Hooked Cross – 14: Enlightenment

Previous instalments: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13

Under the Hooked CrossSilversmith lasted for two hours before saying that he’d seen as much as he needed, by which he meant that his stomach was heaving. He pulled his way to the octagon and sighed with relief when there was nobody else there. He tried to bathe his mind in the azure Pacific below, but the images whirled around in his head. Men and women kept in freefall for months or years and then returned to the Congo and flogged into running until they died of heart failure. People decompressed at different rates to see if they could acclimatise. People pushed into the unshielded part of the pod during solar flares to compare the effects of high doses of radiation with long-term exposure.

Silversmith’s pressed his head against the cold glass and closed his eyes. What the hell was he going to do about it?

The images faded as the question dominated his mind. What could he do about it? This information was the reason Carlton had wanted him on the Penguin in the first place, but Henkel would never let him copy the films. The best he could do, if he ever managed to re-establish contact with Argus, was make a verbal report to an organization dedicated to concealing its own existence.

Destroy the Penguin? He wasn’t an expert on its vulnerabilities, but most of his flight training had been concerned with how not to cause a catastrophe. He surprised himself by how little he cared that he had no way off the Penguin, but he couldn’t stop the Reich putting up another station and resuming where they left off in a couple of years.

He closed his eyes. Think! What was the point of the Penguin? To prepare for a Mars mission. What was the point of a Mars mission? He’d put that to Carlton once. He’d never believed it was a matter of pure exploration, as the Ministry of Public Enlightenment claimed.

“Why do you think Enlightenment’s involved at all?” Carlton asked him in reply.

“You don’t mean the whole thing’s a publicity stunt?”

“Yes, effectively. They need a great cause for people to get behind. Have done ever since the Soviets surrendered in forty-two.”

It had made a certain amount of sense. “And the only wars they have to fight now are with the partisans in Russia and Arabia, and you can’t have a historic victory in a guerrilla war.”

Carlton had nodded. “The Führer is only great if the Reich is great, and the Reich is only great if it does great things. Provided Enlightenment tells people about them of course.”

Silversmith opened his eyes and saw the atolls of the South Pacific in sharp focus, as though they had crystallised out of the whirl of his thoughts. He heard his breathing quicken with excitement. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, he wished there was just one drop of decent Irish whiskey on this thing.

Next week: Chloroform

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.

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Posted in Under the Hooked Cross



(marcovdz [CC / Flickr])

“My dear Senator, you look most red in the face. Have you come far?”

“From the city, Speaker.”

“At some speed, I see. Pray take a moment to catch your breath and then tell me why. I hope you were not struck by a desire for exercise for its own sake. That went out of fashion five years ago, and good riddance.”

“We don’t have a moment, Speaker. We must stop the performance at once. Disperse the audience. There is no time to lose.”

“On the contrary, Senator, I’ve always found that it’s when matters appear at their most urgent that there is invariably more time to lose than one might think.”

“What? Oh spare me the sophistry, Speaker, please. We must cancel the performance and turn out the militia. At once!”

“I shall do no such thing. At least, not until you deign to tell me why.”

“Very well, very well. There are red flags flying in the city. I have seen them with my own eyes. The people are gathering around them. They will be marching on the Capitol within the hour if they’re not already on the move.”

“Oh dear. The plebians are revolting are they? And you, my poor Senator, have been among them. No wonder you look ill.”

“Yes, that’s what I’m trying to tell you. And the performance will put twenty thousand of them on the doorstep of the Capitol.

“My dear Senator, I have never met a pleb who is not revolting. I have never found it sufficient reason to cancel a performance. Think of the poor players. They have been rehearsing for months. Would you wish their efforts in vain when they are poised to take the stage?”

“Speaker, I beg you, save your witticisims for another time. This is no time for levity, but for swift and decisive action.”

“Hm. Action by the militia, no doubt?”

“Yes, Speaker, by the militia. Who else can break up these riotous assemblies before the Capitol runs red with our blood?”

“I wouldn’t concern yourself with the aesthetics. It’s our blood they’re after, which I should hope will run with a most pleasing shade of blue. Well, maybe not if the colour of your face is any guide. Really Senator, a little more sang-froid if you please.”

“Have you listened to a word I’ve said to you?”

“I have listened very carefully to every word, and to the tone you employed to deliver them. That is why I am certain that the performance must go ahead. We shall have twenty thousand honest citizens watching and laughing as caricatures of us are mocked and occasionally murdered for their delectation. After two hours of that, they will be in far too good a spirit to join anything as tiresome as a riot.”

“Surely you cannot mean it, Speaker. Watching us made absurd and vulnerable on stage will only encourage them to take their blades to us as soon as they leave the theatre.”

“Senator, Senator, Senator, you misunderstand the principal of bread and circuses. Now you have brought me your warning and in spite of the thoughts you expose most indiscreetly on your face, I have heeded it. Now you have said all you have to say about the events in the city – you have said it all, have you not? – good. Now I am fully informed, I will act on your information and I advise you to be informed by what you are about to observe. I flatter myself that you will find it of great value should you ever rise to the lofty post of Speaker.”

“Rise to…what I…Speaker, what are you going to do?”

“I am going to turn out the militia as you advised, and to send them to the city to deal with those red flags away from the Capitol. Meanwhile, I will lay on a generous supply of food to be distributed around the audience and a less generous supply of wine. Enough to put them in a spirit to appreciate our gifts to them and to ensure that they laugh at any jokes the players manage not to massacre, but not enough that there will be any risk of them getting carried away. But first, I will ensure that the performance itself is defanged of any political resonance.”

“Resonance? What? How?”

“Simple, my dear Senator. I shall request the players to perform nude.”

“Nude? Well, I…what if they refuse?”

“What a fellow you are, Senator! Refuse a request from a Speaker with the authority to turn out the militia? Who ever heard of such a thing? No, Senator, you are about to watch twenty thousand of the least revolting proletarians you ever beheld. Assuming, of course, that you can lift your gaze from the stage occasionally. If only it were so easy to persuade them to take a bath now and again.”

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Non-fiction Review: Headhunters by Ben Shepherd

headhuntersIn April 1898, Alfred Haddon led his expedition off the Duke of Westminster steamer on to Thursday Island, in the Torres Straits archipelago between Australia and New Guinea. They carried the latest tools for assessing psychology and perception, and the late Victorian concepts of eugenics and racial superiority. What they would learn there would shape the sciences of psychology and neuroscience throughout the twentieth century.

Headhunters tells the story of their months among people popularly characterised as headhunters to hunt down the insights contained within their heads. Their research led Haddon’s team to an earth-shaking conclusion: the supposedly primitive people were not very different to Englishmen. Not only did they lack the preternatural perception that Haddon’s team expected to find, but their personalities were as complex and varied as Haddon would have found in any English village, or indeed among the expedition itself.

After they returned to Britain, those varied personalities took the expedition members in various directions. Haddon himself took a post at Cambridge University where he became one of the founding influences of the discipline of anthropology. Several of his protégés worked with him but William McDougall was drawn in a different direction, being more interested in what he had learned about psychology.

While Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung were building a philosophy-derived theory of psychology in Vienna, MacDougall was building his own approach based on anthropology. It was an approach that would soon be tested by the First World War, which would take MacDougall’s approach out of Oxford University and demand its application to hundreds of thousands of young men broken in mind and body.

The first of Haddon’s expedition to heed the call to duty was Charles Myers who, having a medical background, travelled to France to volunteer his services. Rather than being welcomed as an extra doctor, Myers found no one was interested so he ended up driving a field ambulance for the French army for several months. If it wasn’t the best use of his skills, it gave him first-hand experience of conditions that left so many soldiers emotionally crippled.

It wasn’t long before Myers was commissioned into the British army, where he quickly placed himself at odds with the military establishment through his writing on the psychological damage of warfare, in which he coined the term ‘shell-shock’. The role of the doctor in the British army was to patch up wounded men and return them to the front line. Generals and ministers did not want to hear that men without a scratch on them were in fact invalids, especially not from a Jewish academic in a brand-new uniform.

Neither Myers nor shell-shock would go away, and both gained a level of recognition that made them impossible to ignore. The term shell-shock proved unfortunate; Myers initially used it to mean the psychological damage of being pounded by artillery but he soon recognised that combat could break men who were never shelled. Meanwhile, some of his colleagues insisted it referred to a head injury caused by the concussion of a shell itself, and regarded shell-shocked soldiers who had not actually been shelled as malingerers.

Meanwhile, McDougall’s anthropological experience was proving invaluable in developing what we would now call ‘talking therapies’ to treat the affliction that Myers was describing. He quickly found that the symbolic approach pioneered by Freud and Jung was of little use with men whose limited education had not implanted the relevant symbols in the first place. Having never fully renounced eugenics, McDougall regarded shell-shock as a reversion to the base instincts he had observed among the people of the Torres Straits. While a modern analysis would reject the theoretical basis of his approach, McDougall used it to develop a program of talking therapy that still underpins much modern psychotherapy.

Victorian prejudices died hard. While McDougall was treating soldiers suffering from ‘hysteria’ caused by a regression to primitive instincts, yet another veteran of the Haddon expedition, William Rivers, was treating officers suffering from a far less profound form of regression leading to ‘anxiety neuroses’. Rivers had been involved in psychology before the Haddon expedition, having been a junior doctor at London’s Bethlem Asylum: the infamous ‘Bedlam’. The First World War saw Rivers practising in the more refined environment of Craiglockhart asylum for officers, where he jokingly told one of his patients that rather than suffering from shell-shock, he was suffering from ‘an anti-war complex’. That patient was the author, poet and decorated war hero Siegfried Sassoon, whose polemics against the war had embarrassed the government into writing them off as the strain of combat. The establishment was happy to recognise shell-shock when it suited them.

Their theories may have carried their prejudices and their practices may seem crude by modern standards, but we can recognise the modern conception of post-traumatic stress disorder in what Myers called shell-shock and we can recognise the basis of cognitive behavioural therapy in McDougall’s talking cures. The Haddon expedition members incorporated the insights of Freud and Jung but their system had a much wider application than the Viennese school, which was based on people who could afford their fees, ever could have done alone. Modern psychology owes a great deal to the sojourn of a band of enthusiastic Victorians in the Torres Straits.

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Posted in Book review: non-fiction, Wednesday Pontification

Under the Hooked Cross – 13: Harvest

Previous instalments: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

Under the Hooked CrossThe image on the screen was in colour and good quality, but it still took Silversmith a moment to recognise the naked figure as a human being. The man’s skin was the grey of the mudflats near Peenemünde, and was drawn so tightly over his bones that he looked like a skeleton wrapped in an old curtain. He was strapped to a bulkhead with his arms and legs spread wide. Silversmith thought he must be dead, but the man’s eyes followed the camera as it panned from left to right.

A hand moved in from the left of the picture and pulled the man’s lips apart. Several teeth were missing, and the hand worried at another. The man jerked his head so that the hand was left holding the bloody tooth. The man turned his head toward the hand and spat in the direction of at where his tormentor’s face would be.

For all of the man’s broken appearance, he was fully aware of what was being done to him. Silversmith felt as though his tongue was swelling to block his throat. “What…?”

“Part of the pod is not shielded against radiation. The man had been kept in that part for a month.” Henkel sounded calm, utterly unaffected by what he was seeing. “Are you feeling well, James? You look pale.”

A vision of his clenched fist slamming into Henkel’s face flashed into Silversmith’s mind. He saw Henkel tumbling through the pod, blood spraying from a smashed nose. It took all of his self-control to restrain himself.

“Yes. Yes, I’m fine. But this is…do you realise how valuable this is? The idiots who wouldn’t let the scientists see this should be…should be shot as traitors!”

Henkel looked like a dog being patted for fetching a ball. Silversmith buried his revulsion. “If it wasn’t for men like you, the Reich would have died decades ago.”

Silversmith took a deep breath and forced himself to think. “Now, that man. He’s African isn’t he?”

“Yes, they’re harvested from near the Congo base.”


“And he was part of an experiment to look at the effect of cosmic radiation on an astronaut?”


“What else can you show me?”

Next week: Enlightenment

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.

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Posted in Under the Hooked Cross



(Kevin Baird [CC / Flickr])

I stand.

I look up.

I see a patchwork of speckles on the ceiling of my world.

Stars between branches.

The forest gobbles their morsels of light, sparing none for me.

Darkness engulfs me.

I listen.

I fill my world with the sound of myself. Leaves rustle beneath my feet as I sway with each breath.

I close my eyes. I see no less but I hear more.

A breeze rustles the top of the trees. A rustle might be a foraging fox or a stoat in a careless moment.

I place my right foot in front of my left. My left foot completes the pace.

I stop. Walking in circles will not help.

For a moment, I stain to sense the earth’s magnetic field. It refuses my touch.

I hold my breath and close my eyes again.

I hear it.

If it’s quiet, it’s because it’s muffled by the forest. The hunt is not furtive.

My legs quiver. My feet itch to be moving. I order them to be staunch.

I listen.

I do not allow myself to move until I am sure of which direction I can hear the hunt approaching from.

I turn my back to it.

I run.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Inspirations: The psychology of a city under fire

  • 9/11 and the Blitz both showed the fortitude of civilian populations under attack.
  • Both contradicted assumptions that attacks would lead to mass panic.
  • Behaviourist Solly Zuckerman documented civilian resilience during the Hull Blitz.
  • Zuckerman’s work gives a more realistic picture of what to expect than many writers have appreciated.


How Hollywood used to expect people to respond to an emergency (Nate Steiner [CC / Flickr])

New York must be the most devastated city in cinematic history. We’ve watched giant apes beat their chests from the empire state building, monsters rise from the sea to devastate its skyscrapers and aliens descend from space to blow things up with gleeful relish. Throughout the twentieth century, fictional New Yorkers could be relied on the react in an entertainingly irrational way. If they weren’t running and screaming in mass panic, they were clustering on top of high buildings to welcome hostile aliens in Independence Day or looting abandoned shops in Godzilla.

Then the new century proved Hollywood tragically wrong. The attack on 11th September 2001 was as unexpected and horrifying as anything New Yorkers had faced on film. In the middle of a normal Tuesday morning, they found blazing skyscrapers collapsing around them. No one knew what was happening or what would come next. Instead of the hysteria that Hollywood expected of them, the vast majority of New Yorkers calmly removed themselves from danger, stopping to help each other when needed.

Solly Zuckerman’s apes

Since that day, New York has continued to be attacked on film but the reactions of fictional New Yorkers are very different. Cloverfield showed an orderly evacuation from a malevolent monster while a slew of Spiderman films have shown ordinary people stepping up to help each other and Spiderman himself. As a human being, I am appalled by the tragedy of 9/11 and the consequences of it. As a storyteller who occasionally throws characters into the midst of crisis, I am interested to know how a population under attack is likely to react and how the pre-9/11 storytellers got it so wrong.

One man who would not have been surprised by the impeccable behaviour of New Yorkers under fire was Solly Zuckerman, a South African who travelled to Britain in 1925 to embark


Solly Zuckerman in Tobruk, Libya, in 1943, when he was advising the RAF on bombing tactics (University of East Anglia [Wikimedia Commons])

on a career in behavioural zoology. At a time when most work on animal behaviour was done by simply watching animals and jotting down impressions, Zuckerman adopted what he called ‘the deterministic point of view of the physiologist’, applying a level of scientific rigour that won the respect of the scientific establishment.

His pre-war and early wartime work has recently been summarised in War on Fear, an article by science historian Ian Burney, which contains insights invaluable to any writer who shares my predisposition for throwing heavy and unpleasant objects at my characters.

Zuckerman’s work caught the attention of one of the great British scientists of the mid-20th century, JD ‘Sage’ Bernal, who recruited him into the Ministry of Home Security’s Research Department. By then, war with Nazi Germany was looking dangerously likely, and with war would come bombs. A lot of bombs, on British cities. Bernal wanted Zuckerman to take the techniques he’d used to demystify primate society and apply them to understand how Englishmen were likely to behave under bombardment.

The massing Luftwaffe

Britain had been bombed before, during the First World War, but the Kaiser’s Zeppelins and biplanes had only operated in small numbers. A new war would set Britain against the Luftwaffe’s several hundred bombers, which had demonstrated their devastating power in the bombing of Guernica and Barcelona in the Spanish Civil War.


Junkers 88s, one of the main bombers used in the Blitz, over Aigues Mortes, France in 1942 (ww2gallery [CC / Flickr])

The British government knew that if war came again, it would be the sort of industrial war it had fought from 1914 to 1918. The courage of soldiers, sailors and aircrew on the front line would amount to nothing but meaningless sacrifice unless they were supplied with equipment. That equipment would come from factories manned by men and women living in Britain’s cities, where they would have to churn out everything from bullets to battleships faster than the Germans could. No wonder that the Ministry of Home Security expected those men and women to become a target for German bombers.

Bombing could flatten a factory but the question put to Zuckerman was whether, if the factories could be kept functioning, the workforce would continue to turn up and operate them. Zuckerman found that planning on the subject was based more on speculation than on evidence. Hugh Trenchard, feted as the father of the Royal Air Force, had made the oft-quoted statement that the ‘moral’ effect of bombing would outweigh the material damage by a factor of 20:1. Like Hollywood in the 1990s, Trenchard believed that a civilian population would be reduced to panic and hysteria if it came under attack, and the infrastructure of the country would collapse in short order.

The shell-shock controversy

Zuckerman soon found that Trenchard’s ratio was no more than an unsubstantiated opinion, and set about gathering what evidence he could in the absence of actual bombing. His first problem was that the physical effects of blast on the human body were poorly


A First World War is treated for shell-shock (Otis Historical Archives National Museum of Health and Medicine [CC / Flickr])

understood. In 1915, army doctor Charles Myers had coined the term ‘shell-shock’ to describe a wide range of psychological disorders in soldiers returning from combat that did not appear to be related to physical injury. Myers sparked a controversy over whether shell-shock was a purely psychological condition caused by the horrors of combat, or whether it was the result of brain damage caused by the concussion of high explosive shells. The latter possibility was supported by the observation that men could be killed by an explosion with little or no apparent injury, and perhaps by the willingness of sympathetic doctors to diagnose a physical injury so shell-shocked soldiers could receive a disability pension.

The controversy was unresolved by the end of the First World War, or indeed twenty years later. Zuckerman’s first task was to resolve it, which he did by blowing up unfortunate rats and rabbits in a laboratory. He found that while a nearby explosion could kill by rupturing the lungs, it did not cause brain damage. Shell-shock was in fact a purely psychological phenomenon which encompasses several diagnoses used by modern psychology, of which the best known is post-traumatic stress disorder.

To a government already worried about ‘civilian neurosis’, Zuckerman’s results cannot have been reassuring. It was already believed that soldiers, being young men with army


The remains of Coventry Cathedral are preserved as a memorial (Nigel Swales [CC / Flickr])

training, were more resilient than civilians. If soldiers could be rendered psychologically incapable by combat, what would happen in a war that put civilians in the front line?


Although Zuckerman’s results implied that every one of the many cases of shell-shock diagnosed during the First World War was a psychological rather than a physical injury, the belief that psychological damage was a form of malingering persisted. As war came to look inevitable, the government passed the 1939 Personal Injuries (Emergency Provisions) Act offering compensation for civilians injured by bombing:

The diagnosis of concussion should be made only when the history or clinical symptoms leave no reasonable doubt that the patient has suffered physical injury either by the direct explosion of a shell or bomb, by being knocked over by it, or by being buried under debris of a building or shelter.

The implication was clear: psychological damage alone was to be treated as a try-on.

Not long after that, Zuckerman and the government got the chance to find out. The first bombs fell on London on 7th September, 1940. It was to be the first of 57 consecutive


The original ‘Keep Calm and Carry on’ poster, issued by the Ministry of Information (Martin Burns [CC / Flickr])

nights of bombing, opening a campaign that would last into the following spring and would see most of Britain’s cities bombed at least once. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed and hundreds of thousands injured. So great was the devastation that after a raid on Coventry in November 1940, the German Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, coined the verb ‘koventrieren’ or ‘coventrate’, meaning to utterly destroy or in modern parlance, to ‘nuke’.

As people picked their way out of the rubble, there was no sign of the feared civilian neurosis. People continued to go to work every day, even if they had to spend their nights in Anderson shelters. The phrase ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, which appeared on Ministry of Information posters to become the catchphrase of the time.

Through the first phase of the bombing that would become known as the ‘Blitz’, Zuckerman continued to work mostly on the physical impact of blast. He measured bombsites and the injuries of people caught in them, and used what he learned to direct the efforts of the rescue teams who dug people out of the wreckage of their own homes. His most tangible contribution was designing the ‘civilian defence helmet’, or ‘Zuckerman helmet’ as everyone called it, to protect civil defence workers from flying debris.

The Hull-Birmingham neurosis survey

Zuckerman never lost interest in the psychological effects of bombing, which he and Bernal delved into in detail with their 1941 ‘Hull-Birmingham neurosis survey’. Far from crippling the country at the first sign of bombing, Zuckerman had to go looking for civilian neurosis. He had always been sceptical about it, but he was keen to find out what the psychological effects of intense bombing were.


Soldiers clearing bomb damage in Hull (Imperial War Museum [Wikimedia Commons])

There was no better place to look than Hull, which was the most intensively bombed city in Britain. As well as being a hub of industry and shipping, Hull was unfortunate enough to be on Britain’s east coast where German bombers could get their bombs away and turn away over the North Sea with minimal time spent over Britain itself. Although London received a greater tonnage of bombs than Hull, Hull was a much smaller city. By the end of the war, only one house in twenty had escaped damage.

The government was worried about the habit of ‘trekking’ that had been adopted by many of Hull’s citizens, by which they would leave the city by night and wait out the raids. Was this the first sign of breaking morale and impending civilian neurosis?

No, Zuckerman concluded, it was not. It was, he concluded, ‘a considered response to the situation’. The people of Hull were not, after all, abandoning their city. They returned every day and they continued to work the factories and the port so if they had found a safer and more comfortable place to wait out the bombing, who could blame them?

Two fingers to the Luftwaffe

In his final report on the Hull-Birmingham survey, Zuckerman concluded what Hollywood had forgotten by the 1990s: civilian populations under attack are far more resilient than they are usually given credit for. Certainly, the Luftwaffe simply did not have what they


Bomb damage in Coventry (Coventry City Council [CC / Flickr])

would need to stop the people of Britain hammering out those bullets and battleships. His report concluded with the final sentence:

We are not yet in a position to state what intensity of raiding would result in the complete breakdown of the life and work of a town, but it is probably of the order of 5 times greater than any that has been experienced in this country up till now.

Zuckerman intended the report to put to rest the idea of winning a war by bombing a country into a collective nervous breakdown. He was later recruited into the Royal Air Force’s British Bombing Survey Unit, where he advocated precision bombing of military objectives. He was one of the architects of the air attacks on rail transport in occupied France that badly disrupted the German reaction to the invasion of Normandy.

Area bombing

Not everyone agreed that Zuckerman’s work proved that bombing civilians was pointless. Frederick Lindemann, the government’s senior scientific advisor who had been recently ennobled as Lord Cherwell, drew a different conclusion: If a civilian population would not break unless it was bombed at least five times harder than Hull, then the RAF would have


Frederick Lindemann standing next to Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Imperial War Museum [Wikimedia Commons])

to bomb German cities at least five times harder than the Luftwaffe had bombed Hull. As the Luftwaffe’s offensive was winding down, the RAF’s counter-offensive was gaining momentum with an influx of reservist crews who had finally completed their training, and new four-engine heavy bombers that carried more than twice the bomb load of anything in the Luftwaffe’s inventory.

Along with Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command, Lindemann developed a strategy of ‘area bombing’, abandoning the idea of aiming for specific targets but rather regarding an entire city as the target. Lindemann and Harris planned to pound German cities into dust until their populations simply gave up.

Some RAF planners called the new strategy ‘morale bombing’ while the Germans would come to call it ‘terror bombing’, it would not be incorrect to simply use the term ‘terrorism’.

It was a doctrine that would dominate allied bombing strategy from 1942 onward, leading to progressively larger forces of heavy bombers attacking German cities. The RAF’s night raids were joined by American daylight raids from 1943 onward, and underpinned the American strategy of bombing Japan from mid-1944 to the ultimate morale bombing: the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Historians debate the efficacy of morale bombing to this day. Lindemann and Harris’s detractors argue that deliberately slaughtering civilians is tantamount to a war crime, and that the thousands of young men who died bombing German and Japanese cities were sacrificed to a flawed policy. Their supporters argue that for a reservist air force with


The Avro Lancaster, the backbone of the RAF’s bombing offensive against Germany (Paul King [CC / Flickr])

inexperienced crews operating mainly by night, precision bombing was simply not possible and a city was the smallest target they could be expected to hit. Further, they argue that civilians were legitimate targets as they were supplying their country’s combatants, and that it was Germany and Japan that legitimised the tactic by their own bombing of British and Chinese cities. There remains no consensus on whether or not area bombing was effective. German morale did not break, but the question of whether area bombing damaged German industry more than an alternative tactic has never been and probably never will be settled.

Zuckerman’s legacy

Zuckerman himself was very much on the side of the detractors, stating in his autobiography that area bombing was ‘the very reverse of what we had stated’ in the report. As an advisor to several post-war governments, he argued unsuccessfully against the policy of accumulating a more and more powerful nuclear arsenal, but nobody was listening. To his frustration, his Hull-Birmingham survey was used as evidence for the US Air Force’s Operation Linebacker II, the bombing of North Vietnamese cities in 1972.


A family has just emerged from a shelter to find their house has been destroyed. They are not panicking (Bill Strain [CC / Flickr])

That didn’t work either.

As a scientist, Zuckerman showed how proper scientific technique could be applied to studies of both humans and animals. His greatest finding was that rather than resorting to panic and hysteria at the first sign of trouble, civilian morale is very difficult to break. It’s something that policy-makers and storytellers alike would be well advised to remember.

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Posted in Inspirations, Wednesday Pontification

Under the Hooked Cross – 12: Pluto

Previous instalments: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

Under the Hooked CrossSilversmith felt slightly sick when he pulled himself into the communications pod, and it wasn’t the microgravity. He had the feeling that what he was about to learn would give him a responsibility he neither wanted nor could avoid. His father’s voice again. Seamus me boy, isn’t it a little late to be thinking about that fourteen years after you joined Argus?

Sweat beaded Henkel’s brow. He looked like a man emerging from an ordeal as he shut down the broadcasting equipment. Silversmith felt a twinge of sympathy. Henkel didn’t look old enough for the responsibility of broadcasting to the entire Reich. Silversmith wished he could stop liking the man.

“Good afternoon, Max.”

Henkel rolled to face him with the expression of a man facing a new ordeal. Better calm him down before he changes his mind. “What was today’s program about?”

“Pluto. The astronomers have some remarkable photographs.”

“Hm. Still can’t see who’d be more interested in a lump of ice named after a cartoon dog than my algae.”

Henkel looked bemused. “But Pluto is named for the Roman god of the underworld.”

Silversmith suppressed a wince. Don’t overdo it, boy.

“I never did learn much of the classics. Shall we have a quick look while we’ve got a minute?”

Henkel tensed, curling his legs under him. His nod was barely perceptible, but he turned and unlocked a cabinet full of rolls of 16mm film. “These were all taken in the secret pod. This is an example of what they’re doing in there.”

Silversmith edged closer to the screen. Henkel didn’t seem to be able to stop talking and his hands trembled as he loaded the film. “You understand that I can only repeat what I’ve been told? I’m no scientist. Well, you know the purpose of this station is to develop the technology for a Mars mission? But we cannot be sure what effect a two year mission will have on the astronauts when we’re only up here for six months at a time. We must know what happens to the human body over longer time periods.”

Henkel threw a switch to send the film whirring through the projector.

Next week: Harvest

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.

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Posted in Under the Hooked Cross

Seminar Awesome


(Max Sat [CC / Flickr])

My life began with his life coaching seminar. Twenty minutes in, I knew he was changing my life. When it finished, I went straight out and bought his book. I got it here. You should get it yourself, but don’t ask to borrow it. His book doesn’t leave my sight.

Before I heard of him, I was an ordinary sort of bloke. Had an OK job, rented an OK flat, was seeing an OK girlfriend. I thought I was, well, OK. Then I heard about him. That seminar was awesome. Me and two hundred other blokes who thought we were OK until he showed us you only think OK’s OK when you got no self-esteem. When you got self-esteem, you don’t settle for OK. When you got self-esteem, the only thing that’s OK is awesome.

And he gave us self-esteem that day. All two hundred of us. You’ve never seen anything like it. It was…yeah, it was awesome.

Next day, I dumped the girlfriend. Who needs an OK girlfriend when there’s a world full of beautiful women who can’t resist self-esteem? He taught us that.

Day after that, I dumped the job. He showed me what they’d been hiding from me: I was worth more than a cubicle in a room full of cubicles. Me, I’m worth my own office with one of those chairs with the high backs, like my boss had. Self-esteem doesn’t sit in that little chair they kept me in, with its five little wheels and a rip in the blue fabric.

My boss had no self-esteem either. I hadn’t seen it before him, but I could see it in the shrug when I handed in my notice. My boss was losing the best asset in his company and he didn’t have the self-esteem to even try to keep me there.


I’m still stuck in the OK flat, but not for long. I’ve got the self-esteem for a big chair, big salary job now, and I’ll be moving up to a penthouse as soon as I find it. It’s only matter of time. He told us it sometimes takes a little time, but self-esteem knows better than to rush things.

Now you know who I am, you know why it makes sense. It’s only a couple of grand I’m asking for, just to tide me over. You know I’m a good investment. I believe in myself.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle
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