#secondthoughts: All Quiet on The Western Front

I’m very parsimonious in handing out 5-star reviews, but Erich Maria Remarque’s masterpiece would’ve got twice that many if they’d been available – for yes, I do believe we need a 10-star rating system for books to properly rank them, but that’s a ramble for another day.

Last year, the Reading Addicts site took a poll of their members from which came this list of recommendations of 10 books set during WWI :

Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
The First World War – John Keegan (non-fiction)
Goodbye to All That – Robert Graves (memoir)
A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemmingway
Testament of Youth – Vera Brittain (memoir)
The First Casualty – Ben Elton
The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to War in 1914 – Christopher Clark (non-fiction)
Private Peaceful – Michael Morpurgo
The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry – Various authors (poetry)
All Quiet on the Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque

The Penguin poetry collection formed part of the set reading for my English Literature ‘O’ level all those years ago, and I read the Vera Brittain when about 20 – her age when WWI broke out; unsurprisingly, it had quite the impact on me and it was years before I chose to read about WWI again. I’ve since read a number of the other candidates and wouldn’t argue with the list, except in one aspect – Remarque’s book should, now and always, top it.

Of those listed, half are fiction, and only Remarque’s was written from the perspective of the ‘bad guys’, the aggressors, the war-mongering Hun (I’m British, and that’s how I was taught to perceive the ‘other side’ in both world wars) … and it’s all the more important a read for that very reason, for this book provides the balance which is sorely needed.

otto dix skull

A couple of years ago I wandered into an exhibition of prints by Otto Dix, and this book reminded me of that experience. The obvious common ground is their sharing of the same subject matter – WWI. Others are that their work was produced later – between world wars, both were banned by the Third Reich, and both depict subjects which make you want to look away while having a power that draws you in.

All Quiet on the Western Front was written from the point-of-view of Paul – an educated and thoughtful young man – and what stayed with me were his observations.

How soldiers literally reverted to animal instinct as they get nearer the front, with Paul commenting that indulging in thought before acting could leave you dead. It made me wonder, does being a ‘successful’ soldier mean you must lose your humanity? Paul’s experience in the shell hole with a French soldier he has stabbed, and who dies slowly, demonstrates that conflict between the human and the animal all too clearly. How the fighting of a war makes one scornful of those who continue to insist on the petty military parade-ground rubbish. How those who actually fight can view the older generation, who’d whipped them up on the glory of serving their country and sent them off to a horrific war without a single thought. How going home on leave could be such a viscerally painful experience. Paul had mused previously that the older soldiers, those who’d already started their adult lives, had something concrete to return to if they survived the war. But the younger men, the ones on the brink of adulthood had nothing. They’d been schoolboys, they’d not had a chance to develop yet – and becoming a soldier, fighting in a de-humanising war, had left them empty. Paul’s experiences on leave simply served to remind him of who’d he’d been before, demonstrating that he was unable to re-connect with his past, how that person was gone forever.

No wonder it was banned by the Third Reich. Described as one of the greatest pieces of anti-war literature, it’s strength is in its subtlety. There’s no speechifying, no ranting and raving. It’s neither a gore-fest nor gung-ho, we see soldiers simply doing what has to be done. But seeing the impact that has on them and whether it can be OK for those of us who do not fight to ask that of them, is just one of the many questions you end up asking yourself.

I was recently watching Indy Neidell’s excellent ‘Great War’ channel on Youtube, when he made mention of Remarque’s book. I hastened to his review and was interested to see that, despite coming to the book from the perspective of a historian, he had the same reaction which I, as a reader and writer, had.  What was particularly interesting is that Neidell spoke of the research carried out by Remarque – research which allowed him to write such an accurate depiction, despite his own very brief involvement. Do take a moment to watch it …

 

In short, if you only read one book about WWI – this is the one. It’s an absolute masterpiece – a work of fiction, but positively dripping with historical accuracy.

© Debra Carey, 2019

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Rachael Ritchey on The Making of an Anthology. — Fiction is Food

I may have mentioned this a couple of times, but I had a story published in an anthology, and I thought you might find this behind the scenes story of interest:

Last November saw me alongside fifteen other authors published in The Crux Anthology. This is Rachael’s story on how it unfolded.

via Rachael Ritchey on The Making of an Anthology. — Fiction is Food

I may have mentioned this a couple of times, but I had a story published in an anthology, and I thought you might find this behind the scenes story of interest:

Your lucky … what?

“I wish you wouldn’t mumble …”

Jen flashed Scott a look that said “shut up” before changing the subject “two cappucinos please, chocolate sprinkles on one.”

Waiting till they sat down, Scott tried again “Your lucky what? Is that another one of those things you don’t want to talk about, so you just mumble until I give up asking?”

This time the look Jen gave Scott read ‘panic’ and indeed, she got up and headed rapidly for the Ladies. Sighing, Scott switched round their cups so that the coffee with chocolate sprinkles was in front of her, not him – barristas always got that wrong – and added a couple of sugar lumps to his cup, before stirring vigorously. Luckily Jen was in the ladies for she always ragged him about messing up the creamy head of his cappucino, asking why he didn’t just order a latte instead. To be honest, he didn’t really have an answer, he guessed his coffee order had become a bit of a habit. That and the fact he didn’t like change …

Later that day, just before they knocked off shift, a call came of “officers down”. Scott and Jen joined the rush out the door to go to the assistance of their colleagues. It was a good thing they’d gone mob-handed as it turned out the bad guys had turned out mob-handed too. After a very brisk and hot fire-fight, Scott whispered across to Jen “Got any ammo? I’ve run out but I’ve got a clear shot at the guy who appears the boss. If I can take him down … well, we may be able to bring it to and end.” He watched Jen pat down her pockets and start to shake her head.

Just as he was turning away, he noticed her pull something out from in the depths of her clothing. It was a bullet – just one bullet. As she carefully threw it to him, Jen made eye contact “Don’t waste it y’hear. It’s my lucky bullet … yeah, yeah … that why I always mumble.” Making a mental note to follow that disclosure up, Scott loaded the bullet into his gun, taking careful aim … and the guy dropped where he fell. Turned out Scott’s belief that he was the boss was right – the fight immediately went out of the remaining bad guys and they were soon mopping them all up.

As they were all drifting away from the scene, Jen seemed to be waiting for something, or someone. As the morgue attendants arrived, she quickly rushed over and spoke with them. The conversation got a bit lively, to the extent that the Examiner went over to them. Scott decided it was time he joined Jen, so when the Examiner asked her “you want the bullet that killed this guy given back to you after we’ve done the autopsy ‘cos it’s your lucky bullet, that right?” he stepped right in saying “Yeah, that’s right. It’s her personal property, not government issue. D’ya think you can do the paperwork to make it happen, or do I need to speak to my captain?”

© Debra Carey, 2018

#FlashFiction: It takes a village to raise a child

Michael was quite enjoying retirement, more so than he had expected.  He could remember some old buffer leaving the firm when he’d been the new boy.  In those days it had very much been a whip round of the team, a discrete card which everybody signed, attempting to say something interesting and unique, and of course failing.  Gold watch from Management, or something similar, everyone joshing the leaver about them escaping, all that time on their hands…and that slightly panicked look in the leaver’s eyes ass they tried to work out what they were going to do instead of the same thing that they’d done five out of seven days for the last 40 odd years.  These days, you had to go on a course about how to retire.  Progress…

Sitting in the session with a half-dozen or so others who were flying the nest, he’d tried to think about what he was going to do with himself with ‘all that spare time’.  He and Marion had been talking about this for donkeys years, but it had never seemed real before, and after all there were only so many sun-drenched holidays you could take in a year.  It didn’t seem real with Kerri and Ethan from HR trying to jolly them all along.  He’d found himself drifting into a slightly mischievous mood, and he and Derek, ‘from Accounts’, had been positively disruptive by the end, although they were both old hands at that game so no-one had even realised what was going on…

Kerri and Ethan needn’t have worried.  His days had taken on a certain work-like regularity, quite naturally.  Marion liked to be spontaneous, but luckily she had plenty of friends who liked spontaneity too.  He always made sure there was some flexibility in his schedule to accommodate ‘her indoors’ – from time to time.  Not everyday, obviously.  The regularity was comforting though, no denying that, but he was making an effort to work through all the things that he’d said he would do when he had the time.  Well, maybe not everything – he’d given up on the idea of going hang-gliding.  That was just asking for trouble.  He’d taken the garden in hand thought and turned the manicured-but-dull plot into something much less generic.  Messier, but more fun.  He’d really enjoyed setting up the watering system as well – a vast underground rainwater tank and solar-powered pumps to move it around to various water-butt when required.  There was also a labyrinthine network of drip-feeders and porous hoses to target the water where it was needed.  Marion was on an environmental blitz, trying to cut-out microplastics and such like, and if she was disheartened by the prolonged absences in the garden, she was delighted with the continuous supply of fresh, seasonal fruit and veg.

He was also catching up on his reading.  He’d heard this story of two little old ladies who’d gone into a bookshop and asked for – he could never remember how many exactly – a number of books.  They wanted some recommendations for some books that they really should read: they’d worked out how long they probably had left, how fast they read, done the maths and…well, they didn’t want to waste time reading rubbish.  Michael had made a similar calculation.  Who knew at what point he might start loosing his marbles? Or his sight might deteriorate? Or…? So, he had a bucket list of books that he was determined to read, and now that he had the spare time he spent at least an hour a day reading.

And there were all sorts of other things – his old farts group, the bridge club, online Scrabble that had started as a way of keeping in contact with his best friend, who’d emigrated to Australia, to be closer to his children, and had grown into a network of people that he only knew online.  And of course there were the Grandchildren, Archie and Amelia.  He’d known that Marion helped their daughter Judith out quite a lot with the twins, but he’d been surprised at how much he’d been inveigled into this world – and more surprised at how much he enjoyed it.

He could remember when the twins were born, and indeed, when Judith came into his life.  When Judith was born, it was still quite a new thing for men to be in the delivery suite – he’s half expects, half hoped that he would be told to wait outside.  Roll on to Judith becoming a mother, and she’d been adamant that she was going to have a water-birth, at home.  That dream had fizzled out when she’d found out she was having twins: it wasn’t verboten, exactly, but the midwife had been very clear in expressing her concerns and there was the implication that Judith would be negligent somehow, if she continued with her plans, and so she and her wife Harriet had done the hospital dash just like everyone else.

Judith had her way when it came to child-care though.  A full year of maternity leave, and then a part-time return.  She’d been adamant that she didn’t want the twins in a nursery, so she’d done some deals with other mum’s, new friends met through clubs and activities post-birth and two days a week were covered by a nanny-share.   The rest, another half a day a week, were a mix of Harriet taking leave, when she could, Marion, Harriet’s parents, and even once or twice Phyllida, Marion’s best friend.

Later, things had become a little easier when the children had started pre-school and eventually school.  He’d done the occasional drop-off, before he’d been officially retired, and there had been odd days here and there where he and Marion had taken them off to play grounds and the kind of National Trust places that were better suited to children.  There was the carnage of birthday parties and village fayres.  One of his favourite things, when they’d been old enough, was to take them to car-boot sales: £3 each and the challenge of finding the most interesting thing possible, or the most of something or – well the game could be tweaked all sorts of ways.

He’d done a good morning’s work in the garden.  He put his tools away in the shed and stumped up the garden path to the back door.  Boots off, and popped onto the welly stand that he’d made, he washed up and made coffee – instant, because Marion was out.  He settled down in his big armchair with his book and ploughed through “The Confession of Father Brown”.  As he’d suspected, it was nothing like the series on the telly.  He made himself a sandwich and thought about what he should make for dinner.  As he looked out at the garden, an idea that had been vaguely forming at the back of his mind coalesced.  That bit of the garden just there would be perfect for the children to take charge of…he was picking them up from school in a couple of hours, he could suggest it to them then.

After the debacle when he’d unwarily ended up in sole charge of the children just after he’d retired, he’d been a lot more cautious about looking after the children.  But he’d gained confidence, and he’d found having a plan always helped.  He’d also gotten used to the fact that it didn’t do to show your grown up how much you loved them in front of everyone else, nor for adults to be too demonstrative either.  As usual, he’d been given book bags and coats and drinks bottles to carry.  As usual, snacks had been demanded.  As usual, there had been a request to go to the park.  This was all pretty standard, almost reflexive, and he’d learned to let these things pass to some extent before responding.  Today Amelia was talking to a friend about how Grandad was going to take her to watch the cricket.  He hadn’t realised that Amelia had been listening to that conversation, and he hadn’t realised that she’d be interested.  What had come as even more of a shock was that Amelia’s friend had said she’d like to come too.

He’d rolled with it, and the friend’s mum had said it sounded lovely – he wasn’t sure how sincere that had been – but he resolved to take them all to a match as soon as possible, strike while the iron was hot.  Probably a Twenty20 match rather than a test…  If he played his cards right, this might become a regular thing.  Brownie points for something he wanted to do anyway…win win.

Later, after Judith had picked up the children, tsking over how grubby they were from working “their patch”, he thought about that old phrase that it takes a village to raise a child.  So true, so many people involved.  Sometimes though, a village could be one person fulfilling different roles, being different things to different people at different times.

© David Jesson, 2019

#FF Prompt: It takes a village to raise a child

Musing on the old saw that it takes a village to raise a child, it seemed like it might be quite a good prompt.  All sorts of ways you could take this…

No genre, no limitations other than it must not be NSFW.
Let the muse take you where you will …

Word count: Whatever you can get written in the time limit! 1-2k seems like a good idea, but if you can tell your story in 500, go for it.  5k feels like the top end though.

Deadline: 2pm GMT on Friday 8th February 2019.

Don’t forgot, if you miss the deadline, you can always post your story to our #TortoiseFlashFiction page


As always, please post a link to your blog in the comments below, or send your story to us via the contact us page and we’ll post it for you.

Experimental Writing: Part 1

“Niflheim!”

Bjarni Thorssen had long ago decided to live up to the Viking looks that were his birth-right.  On the international stage, a stellar scientific reputation (literally and figuratively) was rarely sufficient on its own to rise to the top of the pile.  To break into the big-time, you need something extra, something on which the Cult of Personality can go to work.  Over the years, Bjarni had let his beard grow (although he refused to plait it), and let his speech become infected by traditional oaths.  Many would be surprised to learn that Bjarni, a giant in height, girth, and character was, by nature, introverted.  In meetings he could be loud and tenacious in fighting his corner, but no one really saw him in his home environment, and the reality would ave jarred with the mead-hall image he liked to project.

There were many jobs that he would never get: it was the peacemakers who got such plum roles.  But various scandals had thinned the herd considerably, and there were many jobs in the international astronomy community that were his for the asking.  He had a long term plan, and right now Director of the European Space Organisation’s Chilean based observatories was exactly where he wanted to be.

Quiet in private, Bjarni’s bombastic public persona had actually been an inspired appointment at a critical time in the funding landscape.  When there’d been talk of budget cuts, Bjarni had lobbied hard and actually been able to increase his budget (to the chagrin of a number of his peers, who hadn’t been so fortunate).  Whilst this funding didn’t mean the new telescope that the community was calling for, and which Bjarni hoped would be his legacy, essential maintenance had become  exciting upgrades, and he’d been able to fund several new post-doc positions.

One of these now stood in front of him.

“You’ll see that the Duty Operator had a go at a quick calculation, which indicates that the object will strike the Earth.  To be honest, I think they were a bit previous in attempting this, and whilst I’m all for open and honest, and I can see where there might be some advantage in releasing the numbers, I think I would be inclined to file them.  There really wasn’t sufficient information to make an accurate assessment at that point.  The object was watched for another few hours, and in the morning it was possible to refine the calculations which show a reasonably close approach, but nothing that’s going to cause people to head for the bunkers.”

“Don’t you believe it” Bjarni growled, “people are idiots.”

Bjarni noted the careful hand calculations and could see that the erroneous early assessment had been made by Earl Travis, a young buck eager to make a name for himself, despite only being a year or so into his PhD.  The revised calculations had been made by the woman in front of him.  Ris Patel, one of his new appointments, had real potential.  Another twenty years and she’d probably be having this conversation on his side of the desk.  She had the rare ability to see the political landscape across academia and the funding bureaucracies that kept this facility operating, as well as being an outstanding astronomer.  She just needed to develop her persona…

The ESO was the first to report on the object, and it was soon confirmed by other reputable observatories around the world.  No one ever found out where the spurious collision story came from, but Bjarni was very impressive in a series of interviews and very carefully explained that, as the ESO had said in their first statement, there had never been any danger to the Earth… He would go on to win an award for this work (a small one, not a Nobel, or anything like that), but the cash was enough for a small shindig at the observatory.  But as Professor Thorssen doesn’t play any further part in this story, we’ll leave him there.

*****

With all the excitement over the object, which the astronomers decided was probably just a very large comet, and then spent months arguing over what to call it, no one really paid any attention to the rather spectacular shooting star that occurred at around the same time.  Esther, saw it, with her older brother Owain. They’d gone out star gazing and were lying out on the hillside above Abercynafon.  Owain was pointing out the constellations (and not just the obvious ones that everyone knows) when a streak of light spurted overhead and fled across the horizon.

“What was that, Owain?”

“A shooting star, bach.  There’s all sorts of little bits of dust and things up there that hit Earth’s atmosphere and burn up.  That must have been quite a big bit of rock though to make that much light and to go on for so long.  It’s a pity we didn’t get a picture.”

Neither of them connected it with the triple sonic boom that occurred about an hour later, nor, in point of fact, did they realise that that was what they were hearing.

At this point there was not much to see, but they had an impression of something going quite fast overhead.  They thought it must be an RAF fighter on night maneuvers.  They didn’t hear whatever it was playing ducks and drakes across the Tallybont Reservoir.  If it had been eligible, it would have beaten the existing record, but Kurt Steiner’s 88 skips were safe in the Guinness Book of World Records for a while longer – this was no small stone, propelled by a human…

Slowed by it’s entry into the atmosphere and then around the world, slowed further by on board systems, slowed further still by it’s journey across the lake, the space craft jinked lazily up the hillside and then settled next to a little knot of trees.

© David Jesson, 2019


 

During 2019, I’m going to be undertaking a writing experiment, as described here.

The shape of story was formed through a four-part prologue: the first part of the prologue is here, if you want to start right at the beginning.  All through, I’m hoping that you’ll help me shape the story.  At various points, I’ll be asking questions with a choice of answers.  I’ll be polling on Twitter, or you can add a comment below.  So for example, you’ve helped me to decide that the story is science fiction, our protagonist, who is a rogue with a dash of ranger,  is an alien, but the story is set on Earth.

Without giving too much away, the protagonist is piloting the craft that has just landed in the Brecon Beacons National Park.  Are they:

Option 1: Escaping?

Option 2: Scouting?

Option 3: Retrieving something?

Option 4: On a jolly?

I ‘ll leave the Twitter poll open for two weeks, and will add in any votes on here that come in during that time.  Feel free to expand on the options in the comments!  I’m not promising to incorporate anything but always good to hear where you thing this is heading!

See you next month!

#Secondthoughts: Building the party

Time flies, so they say, when you are having fun.  There are some scientific explanations for this – which I’m not going to go into here.  Suffice it to say that I can’t believe that it is two years since I suggested that you could use the principles of roleplay games to help you develop your characters’ backstories, and indeed to help you make your bit part characters less one dimensional.  (If you’ve forgotten, or are new to the blog, that post is here).  I decided to do this follow up some time ago, but life.

Lots of stories focus on a single character: the lone wolf detective, the commando behind enemy lines, the vigilante seeking a brand of justice – or perhaps just someone trying to find their best life without the benefit of a support network.  Equally, there are lots of stories about teams, pooling their skills to bring about the best result possible, and dealing with whatever shenanigans come their way.  So what I’d like to do in this post is revisit the roleplay gaming angle, and throw-in a bit of management theory.  You read that correctly: management theory and RPGs.  (You might be surprised at the synergies here; I’ll try not to make this to cringe-worthy).

Let’s take the Management bit first.  There are all sorts of different models people have come up with for talking about different personalities, how to get different people to work together, and how to get the best out of individuals.  Some have better scientific foundations than others, some are more like a psychology tarot, but I’m not here to debate that.  As an example let’s look at Belbin’s team roles.  Meredith Belbin’s model identifies nine team roles, eight of which have features of personality types, and the final one is the “specialist” – someone with unique skills who may or may not be part of the normal team.  The types are:

Action Oriented Roles Shaper Challenges the team to improve.
Implementer Puts ideas into action.
Completer Finisher Ensures thorough, timely completion.
People Oriented Roles Coordinator Acts as a chairperson.
Team Worker Encourages cooperation.
Resource Investigator Explores outside opportunities.
Thought Oriented Roles Plant Presents new ideas and approaches.
Monitor-Evaluator Analyzes the options.
Specialist Provides specialized skills.

(Table adapted from https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newLDR_83.htm)

When you study these sorts of models in Management training, one of the things they teach you is how to put a team together.  Think about Jim Phelps, flipping though his Impossible Missions Force folder: a lot of what he is doing is putting the specialist skills together, but he’s also thinking about the personalities, and the team skills they bring.  When you complete the test, you get a primary role and a secondary role: one of the tasks of the chair and team leader roles is to get the best out of people by playing to their strengths.  Another is to recognise that all the roles will need to be filled sooner or later and so people might end up having to work outside of their comfort zones, and they’ll need to provide extra support for people in those circumstances.  One of the typically exercises that trainers will do with students is to put them together in extreme groups: a group of ‘plants’ for example, never tend to get beyond the ideas stage…  There’s another team where we can see some of these roles coming through very clearly…BAAdeBA badeBA beBAdeba ba de bebeBA BAdeBAA ba ba BAA.

In the A Team, Hannibal clearly demonstrates the qualities of the Shaper, Coordinator and the Plant – perhaps it’s unusual to have three such strong characteristics, but they are a small team.  If it’s possible to find anyone who is more strongly a Resource Investigator than Face, then I would be pleased to have your suggestions.  He also has to work overtime as the Team Worker, lubricating the machine to make sure that Murdoch and BA don’t kill each other.  The whole team have unique talents that they bring to the party, but Murdoch, Howling Mad though he may be, is the Specialist’s Specialist: there is not an aircraft he can’t fly, not an aircraft he can’t land even in adverse conditions.  I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that the thing that he and BA have in common is that they are both Completer Finishers…  BA though is very much the Implementer.

So far so good.  But what about the RPG angle?  Isn’t that just Wizards and Warriors?

No.  For a start, there are a whole range of RPGs out there, with myriad settings.  But let’s stick to a Fantasy setting.  Different systems use different terminologies, but in general we can talk about types and jobs.  Types are usually reduced to the classical four: Academic, Rogue, Warrior, Ranger.  ‘Jobs’ provides the opportunity for some subtlety and for career growth: a straight up wizard might turn to the dark side and become a necromancer or daemonologist.  A humble guard might work their way up the ranks and perhaps even become a knight.

But we were talking about Belbin and management – what’s that got to do with RPGs and characters?   Well, essentially, the RPG angle gives us the opportunity to bring in special skills, but if we want a team, rather than a rag-tag group of friends, then we need to think about our characters, and their roles in this roleplay.  Which brings us to the team of characters in a story – or are they a team? Perhaps the conflict in the story arises from the lack of a Team Worker, holding the group together.

Another aspect of management theory that could be helpful when pulling your team together in your story world has a name which I’ve forgotten, but essentially points to the stages that you go through when pulling the team together.  The Magnificent Seven gives us some pointers in this regard: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing.  We pull the team together and get to know each other, people argue whilst they settle into their roles and establish demarcation, the team practices and gets slick, the mission is accomplished (or not…).

If you think that RPGs are just about bashing orcs and ogres, rescuing princesses, raiding dungeons and so on, then I invite you to read Jeremiah Tolbert’s take on this – you might be surprised.  Also, in my previous essay in this area, I referenced Kristen Lamb’s blog post, which was on of the articles that got me thinking along these lines in the first place.  Last time I was pointing to the different personality types (Lawful/Chaotic, Good/Evil etc), but in the same article she makes an excellent point about adding conflict to your team.

In summary, I’m not suggesting that writers should always go and and play a game of AD&D or something, but there is a surprising level of depth to the games, depth that can help a writer when it comes to thinking about their characters, and the way these characters behave when they’re forced to work in a team with people who don’t necessarily have the same values…

© David Jesson, 2019