“We came in peace for all mankind”

I’m a child of the Space Age, an infant when humans first walked on a surface that was not of our world for the first time in all of the history of our species. While school chums had posters of football players on their bedroom walls, my walls sported posters of Neil Armstrong and Yuri Gagarin. I remember being lucky enough to have some fabulous toys to play with as a small child, but my earliest memories of any plaything is my little silver spacesuit and helmet. Wearing my toy spacesuit and sitting in a cardboard box for my spaceship with my imagination taking me to infinity and beyond.

I wanted to be an astronaut.

I still do.

When I was just an infant human beings, for the first time in the history of our entire homo sapiens species walked on the surface of another world. Since hunter-gatherer times, long before the dawn of civilisation, human beings had dreamed of the moon, worshipped her as a goddess, called on her power over human affairs, and dreamed of what it was like to be there. But for tens of thousands of years nobody could be there – you could be an emperor or a peasant, it didn’t matter, the moon was forever there in the sky but out of reach. A pleace dreams are made of.

But when I was a child, human beings made the most extraordinary voyage in the history of humanity. We walked across ancient Africa, we spread out across Europe, Asia, the Americas and colonised the world. Much later we sailed across the vast oceans of our blue world, from those astonishing Polynesian travellers on reed boats sailing the vast oceans of the Pacific (some of the greatest natural navigators of all time) to the early voyages of Magellan and Admiral Zheng He to the great Age of Exploration and James Cook.

And eventually we took to the skies, in hot air balloons, dirigibles, and finally heavier than air craft – aeroplanes.And, astonishingly, only a few decades seperate those first few scant seconds in the air by the Wright Brothers at Kittyhawk and human beings walking on the surface of the moon.

Even as a child, watching and reading everything I could on the space programmes of the USSR and the USA, I wasn’t naive, I understood that the two world wars and the subsequent Cold War had driven this remarkable technological advancement, the kind of progress that took us from Von Braun’s V2 rocket, created as a weapon, in 1944 and 45 to his Saturn V rocket carrying humans to the moon in the late 1960s.

I knew this, but even as a kid I looked at the words on that plaque, on that statement on the first lunar landing on July 20th, 1969, “We came in peace fo all mankind” and I wanted to believe it. And to be fair, for many in the scientific and engineering community that was the case – they knew they were getting funding because of Cold War paranoia, military-industrial scheming and national pride, but they took that money knowing they could use it go push the frontiers of human endeavour, science, exploration and knowledge for the pure joy of knowledge. And some of them believed in that credo of “we came in peace for all mankind”.

And I wanted to believe in that too, and I still do. Because it spoke of something higher than national prestige or technological posuring, it hinted at a better future, where humanity was more advanced, when we were one and striving to be the best we could be. It’s the same reason Star Trek has been such a powerful influence on my life and so many other people’s lives, not just the characters and the stories, but the future it painted, a future where humans strove to be better than they had been, to be one species, regardless of gender, or skin colour, to create a world where we expanded our horizons because we could, for the betterment of all.

Yes, I know that was Cold War propaganda, but I still loved that message, I loved what it hinted we could actually be, beyond our  our divisions and nationalistic, gender, and ethnic arguments, that we could all be humans exploring the great infinity of the universe, just waiting for us. And there we had three men, three men who truly did go where No Man Has Gone Before. And yes, I knew it was part of the nationalistic posturing and Cold War posturing, but by god I wanted it to be more than that, and I think many of us felt the same, because that one moment united humanity for a precious short time. We had done something beyond the realms of the dreams of centuries and the entire globe rejoiced.

It feels to me that too often we have stepped back from that first Giant Leap. Fifty years to this very day and we are still to go further – hell, we haven’t even been back to the moon since Apollo, much less futher. All those childhood comics annuals I read as a kid in the 70s told me we would be on Mars by now and that by the early 21st century we would all have affordable holidays on the Moon.

It’s fifty years on, it is 2019, and I am still waiting on that promised holiday in space. Oh sure, we have private corporations promising imminents low-orbit trips, but only for the super-wealthy. This corporate rather than national space programme has been hailed as “democratising” space, but that is rubbish, this is just for the extremely wealthy, that isn’t democracy, this isn’t for the people, it is the privatisation of the great Final Frontier by the wealthy for the wealthy with not an ounce of actual science involved, unlike the national and trans-national programmes. And my dream of every taking that trip above the clouds is as far away as ever, which breaks my heart, knowing that dream will almost certainly never come to pass.

None of that changes what happened on this day fifty years ago, though. Human beings who had started out in tiny groups of hunter-gatherers had, in the space of around 300 to 200, 000 years, evolved to use fire, the wheel, agriculture, ships, early flight and then slipping the bonds of Earth herself to fly into space and the moon. Think about that – dinosaurs, one of the most successful evolutionary genus to ever walk the Earth ruled the globe for a couple of hundred million years. In a few hundred thousand modern humans went from hunter-gatherers to walking on another world.

Seriously, think about that, think about how amazing that is. Think that within the space of a human lifetime, less some seven decades, we went from a few seconds in the air with the Wright Brothers to flying beyond our world. Our grandmothers lived in a world of horse-drawn milk-carts as girls and saw Armstrong, Aldarin and Collins flying in Apollo in their sunset years. That’s the space of time we’re talking about, it’s mind-blowing to think of how rapidly this took place, this most amazing voyage in the history of a species that has made a success of being natural explorers.

It often feels to me that we have not only stepped back since those heady days of Apollo and Gagarin, but we have become smaller. For all our technological advancements since then (when a mobile phone in our pocket, unthinkable back then, has more computing power than all of NASA had back then) as a species we feel smaller to me, we have lost that magnificence that came with the challenge of exploration. Today is it all about the Me, Me, Me individual The Way You Want It world. Not that I mind that entirely, but it needs to be balanced out against the collective, the Us. And Apollo united that Us for a few precious days, we transcended the everyday, glimpsed a better future where we grew and explored not for riches and honours but because we wanted to, because it was the best thing to do, because we were better than we had been before.

As I said I am not naive, even as a kid I knew the political and national and economic imperatives that drove the space programmes of both the US and USSR back then. But I chose to believe in the higher ideals behind it, because those are beautiful ideals, ideals of us being better as a species, of us striving as one to be better than we are, to push the boundaries, to further ourselves for the collective good of all humanity. Yes, I know, you may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one. And isn’t that a dream worth chasing…

Kursk: the Last Mission

Kursk: The Last Mission,
Directed by Thomas Vinterberg,
Starring Matthias Schoenaerts, Léa Seydoux, Peter Simonischek, August Diehl, Colin Firth, Max Von Sydow, Bjarne Henriksen, Magnus Millang

The K-141 nuclear submarine Kursk was laid down in the early 1990s, but by the time she was fully commissioned the former Soviet Union had collapsed. She became part of the Russian navy’s Northern Fleet, a class known to worried NATO observers as the Oscar-II class, larger than her predecessors at some 154 metres, a truly massive beast, stealthy, hard to observe even with NATO’s sophisticated submarine detection equipment, and heavily armed (this class was designed to makes holes in entire enemy battle groups all by herself), with a hull and conning tower reinforced so she could even surface through the Arctic ice. But by the end of the last millennium, with Russia essentially broke, much of this once-huge and impressive fleet is lying at anchor, rusting in the sea air.

For all the power Kursk and her sister ships had, we see a sadly depleted, run-down force – as the film opens we follow a group of shipmates from her crew, lead by Mikhail Averin (Matthias Schoenaerts), desperately trying to raise money for the champagne for one of their fellow’s wedding reception; none of them has been paid in ages, a common occurrence during this part of Russia’s history, wages not being paid by the state, little money even for fuel for regular sailing patrols. They each barter their prized submariner’s watches with the quartermaster to get supplies for the wedding, a warm act of brotherhood for one of their own, an act which leaves the new bride in tears.

And the next day she sails into the frigid northern oceans – for the first time in years the run-down, post-Soviet Russian navy is holding a major exercise, and Kursk is joining it, tasked with launching sneak mock attacks on several of the surface vessels. Despite the lack of pay and resources this crew was still reckoned to be one of the best in the submarine fleet, and their ship a tremendous achievement of engineering and power. As we see her leave her base, watched by their families, the gargantuan scale of this ship is quite clear, and you understand the pride her crew have in sailing on such a vessel. Sadly, of course, for those of us familiar with recent history we know this will be Kursk’s final voyage. On the 12th of August, 2000, an explosion was detected beneath the waves around the exercise fleet. The worst had happened.

You may ask what mileage there is in a disaster film based on real history, when we all know what the outcome is, and it is a legitimate question. I have to say it entered my mind early on, but Thomas Vinterberg crafts his film in such a way that you get to know the men and their families. We see their strong bonds at the start as they try to find supplies for their crewmate’s wedding, we see their families, we see a group of elite sailors who live and work in close quarters at sea and whose families live next to one another on shore, they are all one extended family, and it is clear they would do anything for one another. As we get to know the men on the ship and their families back home we become enmeshed in their lives – I found myself wanting, against the odds, against real history, for some of them to make it, even though I know that all of her crew perished down there, in the deep, cold northern waters, far from the light. But Vinterberg made me want that to happen, his Kursk really does pull you in emotionally to this desperate struggle for survival.

The explosion destroys the forward compartments of the ship – it is generally believed that a badly-made torpedo leaked the unstable hydrogen peroxide fuel (similar to that used in some rockets), causing an explosion, which in turn lead to a bigger explosion as it set off some of the other torpedoes. You can imagine the devastation this wreaks on the stricken ship. The crewmen we follow survive only because they were in the rear section. They are now stuck on the bottom of the sea in the last few sealed compartments, water leaking in, air thinning, waiting, hoping, praying for rescue. But the cutbacks in the Russian fleet have also affected their search and rescue teams – the British Royal Navy (in the shape of Colin Firth’s Commodore David Russell) and Norwegian navies monitor the situation and offer their own far better technical resources to rescue the men they think may be trapped aft, but a proud and suspicious Russia refuses the offers of help, until it is too late.

We’ll never know for sure now if those twenty three men surviving in the aft compartments could have been rescued if Russia had accepted that help more quickly. One officer there made a list of the surviving men, so we know they were there for some time after the explosion, hoping for a rescue that came far too late (Firth has his British officer down perfectly, the obvious despair and resignation mixed with that classic stoic and professional in public persona we expect of an RN officer). The rescue attempts by the Russians, the help offered by the British and Norwegians, the cutting back and forth from the slowly filling compartments of survivors to their frantic families on land, demanding information and being given little by the authorities, all builds to a tremendous if tragic emotional climax. This is all handled in a very realistic, down-to-earth manner, a million miles from the action of the likes of Hunt For Red October, in many ways it has the feeling of one of those classic WWII submarine films, when all the men can do is wait in their ship, deep below the surface and hope.

Yes, we know the outcome here – this event only happened nineteen years ago, we all saw it on the news, we all heard of the Royal Navy’s offer of help, the standard forgetting of enemies when in trouble at sea, because then all sailors are fellow sailors and the code is always to help, and the wait to find out that it was all too late. And yet Vinterberg’s film draws you into the desperate emotions of these men and their families so effectively you find yourself longing for a Hollywood happy ending that you know never happened and cannot be, but he ensures these men are not just some stereotypes, he gives them depth, families, makes us emote with them until we feel their struggle. And he gives them honour, heroism and professionalism as they face their end together.

Kursk: the Last Mission is released by Signature Entertainment in cinemas and on Digital HD from July 12th

EIFF 2019 – Liberté: A Call to Spy

Liberté: A Call to Spy,
Directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher,
Starring Sarah Megan Thomas, Stana Katic, Radhika Apte, Linus Roache, Rossif Sutherland, Andrew Richardson

This is a rare beast – an Indy WWII spy film, which is, I’m pleased to note, heavily female-centric, both in front of and behind the camera. Liberté had its premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival this weekend, including a good Q&A session with some of the film-makers and cast afterwards, and went down very well with the festival audience. While there have been many World War II spy films over the years, it is rare to see the female agents being foregrounded (the classic Carve Her Name With Pride sprang to mind, but not many others).

Pilcher’s movie, working from a script by Thomas (who also stars in the film as Virginia Hall), is inspired by real-life women who answered the call during the desperate days of the Second World War, as F-Section of the British SOE (Special Operations Executive) are attempting to infiltrate agents into Occupied France, despite knowing the far from favourable odds against survival. And they all know that if their cover is blown and they are arrested by the Nazis or Vichy regime, death is possibly the last of their worries, they will almost certainly face torture before any execution as spies. And yet these remarkable women still saw this as vital work that needed to be done and volunteered.

Two of the main agents we follow, Virginia Hall (Thomas) and Noor Inayat Khan (Apte) are among the first wave of women being sent into the field; you may be familiar with their names as both are based on real-life agents who risked all to ensure victory against the Nazis. Even if you have some familiarity with the real history, as I did, it doesn’t remove the excruciating sense of mounting tension that the film builds. Even before they have graduated from training in wartime Britain we’ve glimpsed a little of the mountain they have to climb, from the rampant sexism of the era through to a truly harrowing mock-torture scene designed to prepare the women for the sort of treatment they may face if captured by the Gestapo.

Noor, descended from Indian royalty is a gentle soul, but determined she must help fight the evil of Nazism, Virginia, an American in London (before the entry of the USA into the war) has been trying to become a diplomat but is repeatedly rejected by the State Department, partly on gender lines but also because she has an artificial limb (a leg lost during a hunting accident). Stana Katic’s Vera Atkins, technically a secretary a this point to F Section’s head Maurice Buckmaster (Roache), but really a manager of the department’s affair, pushes for the inclusion of more women agents in the field, and selects these women, among others, for that important first wave.

Katic’s Atkins is a complex character – she and her mother had fled the growing Nazi menace in Europe before the war, and she was not at this point a British citizen, and also concealing her Jewish heritage (anti-Semitism was pretty rampant in the era), mourning a lover posted as “missing in action”, and Katic has to convey all of this, the tightrope Atkins is walking every single day, in addition to the conflicting emotions her work is causing her. She is determined the women can and should be doing field work, and pushes them and supports them and fights their corner for their chance to show what they can do, but she is also racked with worry and guilt, knowing that some of those she is sending into the lion’s den are not going to come home. Noor’s pacifist, gentle upbringing clash with her compulsion to do all she can to fight evil, and also to show what Indians can accomplish (in the paternalistic, racist Imperial era), while Virginia’s determination that her disability will not stop her from fighting the good fight, despite being in constant physical pain, is nothing less than astonishing.

It’s a complex, competing stew of emotions from these three leading actors (the male actors, such as Roache’s Buckmaster or Rissman’s Klaus Barbie – the infamous “Butcher of Lyons” – also given strong performances but the emphasis, clearly, is on these three women). And that’s before factoring in the raw, unrelenting tensions of their work behind enemy lines, the constant looking over their shoulders, moving from safe house to safe house, never being able to be certain who they can trust and who they should be more wary of, aware all the time that anything may give them away, that any person they are dealing with may betray them as the Nazis and collaborating Vichy authorities hunt for them, and this is all happening within an SOE department that is learning the basics of how to operate agents in Occupied Europe, and learning the hardest way.

I found this to be a remarkable film – despite an Indy budget, clever use of locations and a lot of help means that you would never think that while watching the Liberté (Pilcher and Thomas both talked after the film about the generous assistance they had in obtaining some excellent locations and other necessary pieces thanks to a variety of helpers, there was a very warm sense of collaboration by so many to get this film made). That evocative 1940s wartime setting is beautifully shot, the narrative is tight and tense, the emphasis on the women’s roles is handled with power and also a huge sense of respect (the actors spoke to the audience afterwards about their compulsion to do right by the real historical women their characters are based on).

Liberté, while of course a period piece, like many period pieces also has parallels to our own troubled times, from the way women are treated and portrayed in our #MeToo era to the notion of “resistance” to the advance of the black-shirted forces of intolerant darkness, the need for us all to make a stand, to swallow our fear and still carry on. It’s an engrossing, tense spy thriller, a heavy emotional experience, and comes with some exceptional performances from the three women leads, the story having added force knowing that it is based on real events (can any of us imagine what we would have done under those desperate conditions? Would we have volunteered? Would we have been as brave as these women?). Liberté is a powerful piece of Indy cinema, and highly recommended.

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(some of the cast and crew of the film talking after the premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival)

The Clyde Coast

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Dad and I went off down the Clyde coast over the holiday weekend, with glorious spring sunshine sparkling on the Firth of Clyde as we drove alongside. We visited the beautiful old station at Wemyss Bay, often counted as one of the ten most beautiful railway station in the British Isles. The old steel and glass canopy let the light flood into the station:

Wemyss Bay Station 01

The canopies above the platforms have a gentle curve to them, which coupled with perspective and the natural light coming in makes them a popular subject for many Scottish photographers:

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The station was built to connect a railway spur to the Glasgow line to the coast and the steam ships plying the waters of the Firth of Forth, and the station still has a working dock for ferries to the islands, with this handsome wooden and glass sloping (and again slightly curved) walkway to take pedestrians from the station down to the berthed ferries:

Wemyss Bay Station 06

And talking of which, here’s one of the ferries, the Bute, coming into dock:

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And on the way back up the coast we passed the beautiful Cloch Point Lighthouse, built in 1797 by Thomas Smith and his son in law Robert Stevenson, part of that great generational family of engineers, the Lighthouse Stevensons, whose line would also one day produce one of Scotland’s greatest writers, Robert Louis Stevenson, and whose remarkable feats of engineering still mark our coastline today and still protect mariners.

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The Accountant of Auschwitz

The Accountant of Auschwitz,
Directed by Matthew Shoychet

The Nuremberg Trials, which put many Nazis in the court for crimes against humanity, took place some three quarters of a century ago now, but the echoes of those trials, of the legal precedents they tried to establish (that those who committed horrendous crimes like genocide would be held accountable) and the vile deeds they sought to punish have echoed down through the twentieth and twenty-first century, as we’ve seen more and more genocidal slaughters such as Rwanda or the murderous “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslavia (and the trials in the Hague that followed years later). When it comes to the almost unbelievable crimes of the Holocaust though, we are very nearly out of the range of living memory, fewer and fewer who were there (survivors or perpetrators) are with us each year.

As such it becomes all the more important that we have documentaries like the Accountant of Auschwitz, which records events around what may well be one of the last such trials of a Nazi for crimes committed during the Second World War, in this case a seemingly normal, frail old man, Oskar Gröning, the eponymous accountant. Looking at footage of this 94-year old man it is hard to picture him as the young man he once was, more than seventy years ago, let alone as a black-garbed officer of the SS working in one of the notorious death camps (one commentator noted seeing such a frail old man enter the court she felt sympathy. But then she recalled what he and his comrades had done, and that sympathy evaporated). But he did, and after a long, long time, justice finally reached out for Gröning.

Hate is a powerful weapon. And it was in the Second World War and it is today.”

Rainer Höss, anti-fascist activist and grandson of Rudolf Höss, commandant of Auschwitz told the film-makers, adding that the trial was important, not just to try and enact even belated justice, but to remind the newer generations of the horrors that went before and can happen again far too easily (we only need to look at the appalling rise in hate crimes in many countries to see how easily we can start down that road again). Höss also remarked that Gröning’s trial was important because it heard a lot of testimony not just from survivors of the camps, but from the perpetrator. When we have groups who wilfully ignore the huge amount of evidence and still try to claim there was no Holocaust, or that it was exaggerated, the importance of this becomes clear, and some credit must be given to Gröning himself who makes clear that yes, these things did happen, he was there in his SS uniform. And if he says that it is just that bit harder for the modern neo-Nazis to continue their Holocaust denial.

The film doesn’t just focus on this one trial, however, it attempts to place the proceedings into a much longer sequence of events, from the post-war Nuremberg trials to the quite shameful blind eye the new, post-war West German government turned to the many former Nazis who were allowed to go free and live a good life (indeed many ended up in charge of government, industry, the judiciary, so became the class that sets the rules and laws for such investigations and trials), and how the way the law was worded only allowed for very specific, hard to prove charges to be brought (such as a specific act of a specific person killing another during the Holocaust), which allowed many to escape any consequences for their actions.

There was also some element of collective guilt – how many fathers, uncles and grandfathers took part in these events? How much guilt by association does that create for the rest of the country trying to move on and rebuild? The few trials that did happen in Germany rarely convicted and those that did often gave remarkably lenient sentences (a soldier responsible for putting the Zyklon B gas into the fake shower rooms to gas victims to death got only three years). The Demjanjuk case, which some of you may remember from the news some years ago, helped to bring a change in the attitude in Germany. He was found guilty in an Israeli court where witnesses were sure he was “Ivan the Terrible”, but records found after the fall of the Berlin Wall revealed that he was not (although it transpired he had much other guilt, which he pretended ill-health to try and avoid answering for). Laws were altered to allow for trials that relied on more data and less on witness testimony (which had proven so unreliable in his case), and for those who may not have killed personally but were there supporting the whole process to also be held liable (such as Gröning, who rifled the belongings of those marked for death for valuables).

D-Day veteran Benjamin Ferencz is also interviewed – Ferencz was one of the chief prosecutors of the notorious Einsatzgruppen at the Nuremberg trials. They knew they could never hold every single person who contributed to the death camps to account – they numbered in the tens and hundreds of thousands, they would still be holding trials today, as Ferencz put it. Instead his idea was that they would set a legal precedent with the trials, to show that any country that committed such horrible acts would, sooner or later, be brought to justice and individuals responsible would face trial and judgement. The idea was not just to punish these vile crimes but to put fear into future evil-doers that they would always, sooner or later, be brought to account for their disgusting, inhuman actions (think of the vile Ratko Mladić finally brought to trial in the Hague).

Vengeance is not our goal, nor do we seek merely a just retribution. We ask this court to affirm, by international penal action, man’s right to live in peace and dignity.

Ferencz spoke these words at the opening of the Nuremberg trials, and the film-makers cut between this now frail, elderly but still strongly motivated man discussing his role and starting to recite his opening speech, which cuts to the archive footage of him in the courtroom in the 1940s, a nice touch. Alan Dershowitz, a former special prosecutor at the US Department of Justice who was involved in modern trials of historic war criminals, also gives some legal, historical and moral context to the trial of Gröning.

The trial itself is fascinating but also, as you can imagine, disturbing – some testimony is beyond comprehension, such as the cold-blooded murder of an infant in front of the mother, something Gröning witnessed a comrade do. I imagine most viewers will realise this horrific details is unavoidable, given the subject matter, but as with the powerful Night Will Fall documentary a couple of years ago (reviewed here), despite that I still commend viewing to people, because, dammit, we’re still seeing the sort of raw hatred of those judged to be “different” and where it leads, and we really, really need to be reminded of it, to learn from it.

The testimony of those who were there, whose ranks thin further each year, is vital, but also the film’s placing the events and their impact into legal and moral context for modern society, and, importantly, for future generations (and possible future perpetrators of such horrors) is extremely important, not only in making sense of it all, but in reminding us that we all, collectively, have to try to learn, to be better, and if and when some of us fail that others can and will deliver justice on them.

The Accountant of Auschwitz is released on DVD and Digital by Signature Entertainment from Monday 15th April

Memorial to the Mothers

Several years ago Jonathan Clode and John Stuart Clark (who has long cartooned under his pen-name of Brick, his graphic memoir Depresso made my best of the year list in 2011) were trying to put together an interesting project, an anthology of stories to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War, To End All Wars, to be published by the fine Indy UK publisher Soaring Penguin Press. Along with others in the comics community I put out a signal boost (on the sadly now defunct Forbidden Planet Blog) for the call for contributors, with a desire to avoid jingoism and nationalism, to include writers and artists from different countries who would tell tales (often inspired by real people and events) taking in the different sides in that dreadful conflict, the many arenas, from the hell of the Western Front to the frozen slaughter in the Alps, beneath the waves, in the air.

To End All Wars 01
(cover for To End All Wars by Elizabeth Waterhouse)

As 2014 approached there were many plans to mark the centenary, more than a few in very respectful and emotional ways. But, as ever, there were those who (usually for political, ideological reasons) who tried to argue this was not an occasion for reflection but tried to claim the more “glorious” side of war (yes, Michael Gove, we’re looking at you and your ilk). Above all else none of us involved wanted that, if anything we stood by Wilfred Owen’s line about “the old lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro Patria Mori”, how sweet it is to die for one’s country. We had no time for those who would hide horror in some imagined glory, we wanted to tell stories about actual people caught up in this vast conflagration, the people behind those awful lists of statistics of dead and wounded and missing.

In the end more than fifty writers and artists would take part, from thirteen different countries, including Brick and Jonathan who also created stories as well as herding the cats by bringing together and editing all the stories from those different creators in different countries. No-one felt comfortable with earning anything from this, we decided that monies instead would go to Medecins Sans Frontieres, the medical charity that has and continues to help  victims of wars. I’m told that overall we raised some £3, 500 pounds for that cause. The anthology got some nice coverage on the BBC site, and at the annual Eisner Awards, the major comics gongs, given out at the huge San Diego Comic Con, we found ourselves with two nominations. We didn’t win, but for an anthology like this from a small Brit publisher to get to that level of recognition from fellow comickers was wonderful (I am still happy to tell people I was in a double Eisner nominated book!).

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(one of the personal crosses in the Garden of Remembrance which has just opened in Princes Street Gardens)

There were some people I knew taking part, such as Brick himself, Selina Lock, my old pals Andy Luke and Sean Michael Wilson. So many I hadn’t heard of before, some of whom would create stories here that have remained in my head ever since, such as Stuart Richards’ Il Gatto (a wordless tale following a real-life event of a cat who went between the lines in the war in the Alpine peaks), Ian Douglas and Stjepan Mihaljevic’s Dead in the Water had haunting imagery from the U-Boat war, both the sailors above and those in their steel coffins below.

Near my home in Edinburgh there is an old cemetery, the centre deliberately allowed to overgrow to offer a mini wildlife refuge in an urban area. As with many such places it contains Commonwealth War Graves. One in particular has always captured my attention as, unusually, it is a double memorial a father, Private James Allan, and his son, Pipe Major James Allan, both from the famous Royal Scots, the father killed at the end of The War to End All Wars, his son killed in the war that came after that one, during the fall of France. Eerily both were the same age when they lost their lives. I often wondered if the father had comforted himself during his battle that at least his young son would grow up safe, because who would ever be foolish enough to start another war after this one?

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I had shown a photo of their gravestone to Brick, who commented that there was a story in there, and perhaps I should consider trying to pen one myself. I thought about it, and the first ideas seemed too cliched. I let it sit in the back of my head until an idea just came to me – two names on there, father, son. But there was a third casualty, whose name didn’t appear there, the wife, the mother. And as I thought of that I realised by extension that all of the many war memorials, from the smallest wooden tablet in an old church hall to large stone obelisks in city centres, also lacked the name of those other casualties, the mothers, the wives, the sisters. Women who had loved those men only to see them ripped away violently from them, left with a wretched wound that went down to their very souls, the walking wounded whose names were never etched on any monument.

I had my way into the story; I wasn’t satisfied unless I could find an emotional key to it, I felt it had to have that emotional weight, partly for the reader, but also partly from respect for what those mothers had gone through. I think I channeled a lot of my own grief from the sudden loss of my own mother into the writing. I write every week, but since we lost mum I hadn’t penned a story, reviews, interviews, articles, yes, but the spark for narrative was dampened, but I had a strong urge to do this one, and wrote it in a few hours without stopping, stream of consciousness style, then did a little pruning and editing. I thought perhaps I put too much into it, took some out, but Brick and Jonathan told me not to hold back, put it all in.

Kate Charlesworth, veteran comicker, fresh from creating the art with Mary and Bryan Talbot for the superb Sally Heathcote, Suffragette, kindly agreed to do the art. The rest of the collection is in comics format, but our story, which would close the book, was prose by me with illustration by Kate. My few visual ideas weren’t terribly insightful, but as Grant Morrison once said, writers should trust their artists on the art – they know more about it than scribes. And Kate came up with some beautiful ideas I’d not have thought of, such as the little mementoes like baby boots or locks of hair that mothers keep, or the bookending of the pages with a group of women from all walks of society (because this conflict crossed all lines) seeing their men off to war with a similar image of mothers from different cultures and countries clutching pictures of their lost loved ones from all the too many damned wars we’ve had since then. It was beautiful, emotional, worked so well with the words, and I admired that Kate carefully avoided using any military or combat imagery.

Four years on and the book is almost out of print – you can’t find it on online bookstores like Amazon (except second hand), but Soaring Penguin still has a very few left, so you can buy it from there (and two pounds from each book sale still goes to MSF). We started this journey to coincide with the 1914-2014 centenary. As this November sees the centenary of the Armistice in 1918 I wanted to do something, and after seeing the Garden of Remembrance opening in Princes Street Gardens a few days ago I thought perhaps I could post the pages of my and Kate’s story online for anyone to read, and take from it what they will. I asked Brick and Jonathan and Kate, and they all were supportive of the idea, as were Tim and John at Soaring Penguin.

So here we are, from To End All Wars, prose by me, art by Kate Charlesworth, “Memorial to the Mothers” as our little but heartfelt addition to this centenary year, and, hopefully, a reminder to always, always hold those who would lead us into violent conflict to account, because it is those in power who make those decisions, but it is rarely them who pay the price in blood and broken bodies and heartbreak.

First Man

I didn’t know there was a film about Neil Armstrong coming until I saw the trailer for First Man today. Ryan Gosling is playing my boyhood hero Armstrong, and I can see him being a good fit: Neil was famously cool, calm, quiet, even when almost out of fuel hovering over the surface of the Moon, and Gosling really has a quality of quiet and stillness. First Man is due out in the autumn.

A Study in Steel

Here’s an interesting one for those of us who turn into excited ten year olds when we see a classic steam locomotive, an old film documenting the building of an LMS Princess Royal class mainline loco. I’ve seen one of these engines under steam, they’re beautiful, elegant machines, fascinating to see one being built from pieces of molten metal and the hard work and sweat of the skilled workmen:

And here’s the Princess Elizabeth, a Princess Royal class in that lovely LSM maroon livery, under steam at Carlisle:

steam at Carlisle 013

Reviews: the eternal tangle – Best of Enemies

The Best of Enemies:a History of US & Middle East Relations Volume 3,

Jean-Pierre Filiu, David B,

SelfMadeHero

I have been waiting for this third volume in the Best of Enemies series for a while – back in the summer of 2015 author Jean-Pierre Filiu (a former French diplomat and now history lecturer) was at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, on a double bill with Martin Rowson and chaired by Teddy Jamieson. At that point the second volume had only just come out, and the audience were treated to a fascinating discussion by an author who didn’t just have deep academic, historical and cultural knowledge of the issues, but a lot of first hand experience from his years working in an NGO and as a diplomat.

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2015 - Jean-Pierre Filiu & Martin Rowson 02
(Jean-Pierre Filiu signing previous volumes of Best of Enemies after his event with Martin Rowson at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2015, photo from my Flickr)

Ally this with some quite remarkable cartooning art by the great David B and you had two totally fascinating volumes of recent and modern history that has shaped – and continues to shape – our planet’s geo-politics. Jean-Pierre explained that the amount of work involved in researching and then illustrating the books had taken quiet a toll on David B, hence a bit of a gap between those two and this third volume, which covers US and Middle Eastern relations from 1984 -2013. And that right away makes an already absorbing read even more compelling, because we’re moving from history, both older (18th century and the earliest foreign policies of a young USA) and recent (mid twentieth century) to events most of those reading will have lived through, have watched on the news, often with varying degrees of anger and despair.

And this third volume also takes a quality all of the best histories have, the ability to show that history in today: why our world is now as it is, because history is never just the past, dates, facts, events, it’s a rich tapestry, perhaps the most elaborate tapestry humans have created, so many inter-connecting threads all forming the today. The previous two volumes had this too, but with volume three covering such recent periods it really, really brings that aspect of history home to you, and that’s a damned good thing. In fact that’s one of the reasons many of us like to read history – we know the here and now is an expression of so many elements and events that preceded it, and we cannot hope to have any understanding of the now without that grasp of the earlier woven segments of that vast and never-ending tapestry.


And even though the book comes to an end at 2013, it leaves things open, because that history is still rolling on, as we know all too well just from our news bulletins – this volume takes in events we’re still reeling from in horror right now, such as the vile slaughter in Syria. It is all but heartbreaking as Filiu and David B show how policies and events from decades before in different capital cities created the scenario whereby Syria could fall into the seemingly endless civil war that has horrified us all and which the world seems powerless to stop. We see American and European activities with Israel, Iran and Iraq and how they pulled in Egypt and Syria, adding dominoes to the line that would later fall with such horrendous consequences.

We see Reagan, Bush (Snr) and Gorbachev, the USA and USSR both involved in talks in the Middle East, only for fledgling peace processes to falter and stall. We see that USSR collapse a little after those attempts to broker talks, then some years later the revived Russia under Putin intervening forcefully in those same regions. Of the globalisation of the “war on terror”, going from a supposedly noble aim (if you believe the propaganda about who we were supposed to blame, sometimes, but not always clear or true) to an easy excuse for any power to use for overt, powerful, often illegal actions.

Extra-judicial killings and torture? This justifies it. Breaking the terms of a peace process? We have to, because we are fighting the same terrorists as you, so you have to support us. As Israeli PM Sharon says by way of an excuse “Everyone has his own Bin Laden”, to justify breaking the terms of peace talks and use of military force. Putin uses similar excuses in Chechnya, leaders even in supposedly democratic countries use it to justify civilian deaths in military adventures, torture and the erosion of civil rights. Yes, this will leave you not just upset, but angry, bloody angry, and you should be. Of course we have the benefit of hindsight here, always useful, those who made the decisions that started these various dominoes did not, but they also failed to make much of an attempt to look forward at the potential repercussions of their actions and policies, sacrificing the tomorrows to the expediencies of today, as politicians all too often do.

David B’s artwork is, once more, absolutely superb – this is the work of a comics master at the height of his powers. He summons both humour and horror, satire and sorrow – invading armies during the Gulf Wars are shown as giant soldier’s helmets on legs with giant cannon barrels projecting from them, he again uses differing sizes to denote the relative power of different players (so the US presidents and generals are shown as huge frequently compared to other leaders, despots like Saddam are small compared to US presidents in the art but huge compared to some of his own enemies like the Kurds). There’s humour to be had – a bellicose Saddam Hussein yelling threats takes the form of a giant thunderstorm of a speech bubble, like an adult version of the “swearing” in an Asterix album, or Clinton depicted with Pinocchio nose a he lies about Monica Lewinsky, but distracts everyone with a missile strike against terrorists, only for one of the missiles raining down to turn out to be his Pinocchio liar’s nose.

And of course the artwork conjures disturbing, even horrific imagery. A panel depicting an Israeli-Hezbollah war in the Lebanon where, as usual, there were no clear winners but very clear losers – the civilian population (as in so many wars). The panel only shows a little, the bare feet sticking out from under the blankets covering the bodies, but it is more than enough, and it is echoed by later pages on the ongoing slaughter of civilians in Syria. Another panel depicts uniformed skeletons, all that is left of large numbers of Iraqi soldiers after the mass bombing on the “highway of death”, or the gunning down of protesters and crushing of suddenly raised hopes during the Arab Spring, yet another a starving child in Syria, hungry mouth open but the only thing falling into it is barrel bombs, all depicted in clear, powerful black and white artwork.

These histories take in cultural movements, political posturing, chicanery, greed, opportunism, nationalism, religious zealotry (Christian as well as Muslim), but also attempts at peace, noble aims of freedom and equality. In short these pages take in much of the worst and best of human nature, and they do so in a way that doesn’t point one accusing finger, for there is no one guilty party here. What this book and the preceding two volumes make eminently clear is how interconnected it all is, the actions and reactions and counter-actions from many different leaders in different years in different countries, all contributing to lead us to this point where we have madmen murdering innocents with airplanes into towers and others dropping bombs on civilians, and all of them in the name of some imagined higher purpose.

These are immensely complex woven threads in the grand tapestry of history, but Filiu’s expertise and deft analysis coupled with David B’s remarkable comics art makes it far more accessible and understandable than many prose works could. And we need to understand these things, we need to be aware of them to try and have some grasp of what is happening and why, and so what could be done to steer towards a more peaceful course eventually. Sadly I doubt many of the world leaders who could really do with learning from these books will ever read them, but that should not stop us from doing so – this is essential reading, and a fine example of the power of the comics medium to make such a complex subject accessible and understandable to readers. I highly recommend this and the preceding volumes.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

How to Survive in the North

How to Survive in the North,

Luke Healy,

Nobrow Press

First off, apologies for the tardiness of this piece; I read How To Survive in the North a while ago, put it to one side when busy, intending to get right back to it and writing it up. And promptly buried it under several other books, only to rediscover it when I was tidying a pile of recent books. Still, surge of guilt aside, this did give me a chance to re-read it to refresh my memory, and I found myself enjoying it even more the second time around.

The book follows two early twentieth century Arctic expeditions, with a contemporary strand in which troubled academic Sully Barnaby, recently put on an enforced sabbatical, inspired by finding the name of a much earlier lecturer who once used his office, starts using his newly freed time to start digging into the college library’s records on Vilhjalmur Stefansson. As he examines boxes of letters, journals and other documents in the Stefansson collection he also comes across mentions of Wrangel Island, which leads him to another expedition, on which a young Iñupiat woman, Ada Blackjack, was retained as cook and seamstress. The Stefansson organised expedition to Wrangel Island in 1921 also included Fred Maurer, who had survived the shipwrecking of a previous expedition on the Karluk which had left him and other survivors trying to survive for months on Wrangel Island.

With his suddenly enforced bounty of free time Sully begins piecing together the stories of the two expeditions, of surly, bad-tempered Captain Bartlett (who may be a tough and rough, prickly old salt, but he is also a very experienced captain and proves quite heroic in his determination to try and protect his crew in the face of disaster), of Stefansson, out to make a name for himself in Arctic exploration, and Ada, a woman struggling on the poverty line and with a seriously ill young son, driven into this dangerous mission by the simple need to earn money to pay for her son’s treatment. All are caught in a battle for survival on their trips, when things go wrong, and the Arctic is brutally unforgiving of mistakes.

Healy nicely captures something of the atmosphere of that last blossoming of a bygone age of great exploration, of adventurers and scientists (and indeed sometimes the scientists were adventurers) and sailors pushing into the last parts of the globe that weren’t fully mapped and understood (or claimed for one flag or the other – nationalism too plays a large part in these expeditions of this era). It’s an era that was as remarkable for its stoic heroism in the face of adversity (some of that adversity caused by their own lack of knowledge or preparation). Mostly told in pages of sequences of small panels, which keeps the narrative moving along, while the art is full of atmospheric little touches, like the frozen breath in the Arctic air – just a tiny detail, but it shows the attention Healy is paying to crafting his scene, to trying to induce a feeling for that great, frigid wilderness and the sort of people who challenged it for survival (some triumph, many do not).

The use of the troubled (fictional) Sully to piece these real historical events together is a clever one, not just as a mechanism to allow us into the twin narratives of the expedition, but also as a nice contrast. The middle-aged, pleasantly plump Sully has some personal problems (the cause of his current enforced sabbatical), but despite this his has mostly been a comfortable, sheltered, academic life in our modern age of conveniences, in stark contrast to the pushing the edge of survival of that age of hardy explorers and what they endured. It’s an absorbing, atmospheric melding of real history with a dash of the fictional tying it together, and a reminder of an era, only a century ago, when the edges of the world were still rough, dangerous and often unknown, a world vanished in our modern day when we can look at any spot on the globe from the comfort of our armchair.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

“You are here…”

Taken on this day in 1967, from the unmanned test of Apollo 4 on November 9th, paving the way for the soon-to-follow manned lunar Apollo missions which would put a human being on the moon by 1969, a view of our world that until that point no human eyes had ever seen in all of history, taken at an altitude of 9, 544 miles above our world.

This was taken not long before I was born. By the following Christmas of 1968 Apollo 8 would take the remarkable “Earthrise” photograph as they came around from the dark side of the Moon, the farthest any human being had ever been from home, the very first to see the entire globe of our world, and see it rising above the Lunar horizon. The following year Armstrong and Aldrin would land on the Moon’s surface. I was born into the height of the Space Age and as a boy I dreamed of being an astronaut when I grew up.

Sometimes looking at these images I still dream