Friday 24 November 2023



Go here if you want to learn more; 

(On the one hand I am the least successful of the OSR diaspora, on the other I am not doing too badly for a guy with a double-digit IQ.)

Monday 6 November 2023

The City of Drift

 (Some Discord bros gave me a hand with some of the scent markers. All images by John Atkinson Grimshaw.) 

Once stolen by Ghosts, (allegedly), and still on the run, Drift moves with the mist like a ship drifting at sea, coalescing and emerging, overlapping and interlacing with other places, its streets curving around theirs, its buildings interspacing theirs. So Drift is always changing a little within itself, as it translocates, seamlessly, from place to place. 

It is a town without clear boundaries, signified by mists and gloom, smoke and smog, the ripe interweaving patterning of bells, the clopping of its slow, thin horses, the whispers that skitter through its alleyways and the layers and waves of subtle scent that mark its palaces and shops.


The Coming of Drift 

The town no longer has a place reserved for it in clear reality,  instead being confined to the ocean and the mists, to the gloaming of dawn or the embers of the day, to overcast nights or fog-shrouded days. 

Drift comes upon normal places silently, infiltrating its alleyways between buildings in the fog or smoke, at night or in the afternoon, in silent or ill-travelled streets. The exact moment of its arrival cannot be perceived, (in fact that exact moment does not even exist, lost in the records of time the same way the location of Drift is lost on the maps). 

The first signs of Drift are the pungent scents of its shops, narrow alleyways between buildings that previously had no gap, the off-kilter clopping of its pale horses, the smell and distant sound of the sea, no matter how far from the sea you may be, the melodious overlapping of bells telling one time or another, or signalling one direction or another, and the low distant vibration, a sound unlike a horn, deep as a beast, but more regular, coming from the statue of Mutability which stands on an island in the cities harbour. 

All the alleys into Drift lead downhill, no matter where they emerge or what the rest of the geography is doing. The alleys are narrow and shrouded in mist, perhaps with the gas lamps hanging from the rear of one of its thin carriages retreating. 

Once an entry is there, it has always been there, with every sign and evidence of its permanent existence in place; with the same dirt and texture of its current location, the same or similar materials, the same road surface and a sign, if that is usual, in the style of whatever place it is, pointing inwards, spelling ‘Drift’. The sign and walls and floor will be dirty or worn or clean and sharp, just like the place of its arrival. Graffiti will lead in seamlessly from walls which were always there, turning on to walls which have only ‘always been there’ since a moment ago. Vague half-memories of Drift emerge in the minds of anyone approaching an entry; it doesn’t much of a stir. When its there, people soft of remember that it has always been there. When it is gone it is nearly forgotten. 

Magicians, adventurers, occultists, mediums, fortune-tellers,sea-captains, rope merchants, perfumiers, opera singers and hooded figures sometimes suspect when drift will arrive and where and quietly pack the local pubs and cafes, sitting creepily and ruining the ambience for the locals, waiting for a moment that cannot be sensed, after which, the vague memory of the existence of Drift will be revealed especially to Publicans, the Homeless and Cab Drivers past middle age. 

Asking them before this moment will only get you a funny look, but waiting for that senseless un-time and asking then; “Do you know the turn into Drift? Its somewhere around here I think?” And the answer will be a clear “Course I do mate, down the road on tha left innit. Dunno why you’d want to go there.” 


The History of Drift 

Founded By Ghosts 

Ghosts walk the streets of Drift City - antechamber to the shadow world, (allegedly). The founders of Drift City were all dead by the time they arrived, (they came on a Ghost Ship), that is why it took them so long but also why they could find it. 

In other stories the Ghosts stole Drift, either to keep it or to keep it safe. Maybe it was a High Fantasy thing? Saving it from the Dark Lord? Or a Steampunk thing? Some experiment which killed the experimenters but left them as ghosts in an empty city? 

Whatever. At some point early in the history of Drift, it was an empty city, but for Ghosts. At that same point it was also a placeless city, drifting, as it still does. 

Maybe whatever created the ghosts made the city Drift, maybe not, but the Ghosts were the first residents, the Founders, and they are still here and are still the Founders. The Municipal Government of Drift has never changed, though it has faded in and out of intelligibility over time. Bylaws and judgements are communicated (though not decided) by Mediums. The ghosts are conservative but reliable, difficult to influence via bribery or pork. Because Drift was founded by ghosts its government buildings are cemeteries and visa versa. 

Of course there are new ghosts, now and then. If they have a knack for it they stay in place and work their way up the ranks. Change is slow. But Drift is a relatively safe place for ghosts. 


Populated by Exiles and Slaves 

Shipwreck victims, outlaws, explorers, outsiders. Exiles. Escaped slaves, forgotten Kings. Like many harbour towns, Drift is a mosaic of eternal expatriates. Unlike most there is no ‘back country’, and no main ethnicity, apart from the Ghosts. 

It is rare for anyone to settle in Drift City who is not an eccentric, outcast, or hunted, or anyone who is not comfortable with ghosts, gloom and strange sounds. 

Since all the major governmental roles are occupied by the dead the living elite of Drift are made up of traders, skilled craftsmen, artists, mediums, magicians, Sea Captains, ship owners and the lords of insurance. The lack of (tangible) nobility makes it a relatively flattish, but quite high-toned upper crust. Birth gives a little rank but reputation more. 


Turning Into Drift 

A Maritime Town 

Drift is usually a shore city and usually has a harbour of sorts. Sometimes it even has a harbour when it appears far inland. Almost all of its economic activity comes via ship and the sailors of Drift City can always find their way home; they will get there through the mist. 

Usually, one turns into Drift through the alleyways at its periphery and heads downhill towards the moaning of Mutability. On the rare events one can see a view through fog, smoke or gloom, (that is not a careful Trompe l’oeil), one sees the tangled towers and alleyways and mixed-up ziplines of Drift cascading down in a bricolage of driftwood architecture, down to the harbour, the Opera House and the statue of Mutability, the goddess bearing an intermittent torch of fire as pale and translucent as the mist itself, most visible to those near death, with the city spread out around it like a shattered crater of houses with about two fifths cut out of it to let in the black sea. 


A City Of Alleyways 

The alleyways are crooked, long and thin. There are not really any streets in drift, or anything you could easily call the Main Way, just alleys leading off alleys. The widest roads are about the width of those in a Medieval European town; ghostwives can chatter between windows in the overhanging eaves, people can easily leap across, bridges, improvised or carefully designed, are thrown between buildings over streets. 

It’s hard to tell the difference between a gap leading to an alley or just a deep porch. Turns are hidden in nooks. Alleys are gated off but the gates are left unlocked. The boundary between public and private is nebulous. Its common to feel that you are trespassing. 

When its busy on a lane, people just turn off, loop around. There is always a possible detour in Drift, people percolate through the city like chemicals in blood. 


Buildings Long, Tall And Deep 

Long thin buildings lead off long thin alleyways.. Buildings tall and slender, tenements housing the descendants of pirates, shipwrecks, those lost at sea, traitors, slaves. Drift has famous glassworks,  many buildings are tall, slender and glass fronted with iron frames. The curtains are always closed of course, but you can see lights moving behind them at night. 

Others have narrow frontage but go deep to the rear, ending in gardens. Others are long laterally,  old manufactories, or built like them, asme buildings occupy different positions on the same street, or on another street, either crossing the road on a bridge before dropping down, forming part of the same building but on the opposite side of the road, or even overleaping or burrowing under a whole row of building by bridge or tunnel before occupying an entirely different street. Sometimes the doors and exits are quite different to the buildings position; enter through a narrow door, turn a corner, climb steps to an attic space, cross over the entire block of buildings through a shared attic, take steps down and find the bulk of the building facing a different road.

This aids intrigues in Drift - many secret or forgotten doors, dumb waiters, shared rooms, attics or cellars, and many houses or offices directly adjacent to others across a thin wall while the actual entrances and addresses are in quite different parts of town 


Trompe l’oeil 

Trompe-d'oil is prized in Drift, though many of the paintings are decayed. Most high-status buildings or frontages will be painted trompe l’oeil, so that the a description of that painting forms the part of a buildings (or a doorways at least) address. ‘The House of Many Leopards’, the ‘fourth door in the Garden of Setebos’, ‘down there on Flamingo Row’. 

While the rich can have their buildings painted and regularly upkept, the middling classes must subsist on pasted Trompe. Many of the famous painters have tall, thin buildings with tall, thin doors. When their huge paintings are complete they are rolled out through the multistorey doors and shifted into place to block street entrances,  to occupy blank walls at the end of long avenues, or have holes cut in them for windows and doors before being pasted up as the front of residences. 

Over time all the paintings blotch and stain, and those posted up can peel away, or part away, leaving ghost signs or layered palimpsests of variegated images from different eras. Though of course at one point this very decayed palimpsest style, painted as such, was itself a deliberate artifice and quite in vogue for a time. 



In Drift, everything is textured and patinaed. Nothing shines like new and nothing is entirely clean. It would be nearly pointless anyway, what with the fog, smoke, rain, gloom, the salt from the sea and the lichen and hot breath of its closely packed, though quite quiet, population. The ghosts wouldn’t like it either. 

Ald and worn things are treasured, new made things are not. Wood smoothed by many hands, or by the sea, cups with long-use stains at the bottom, even the slight abrasive chipping of glass or crystal. Smoke stains, soot stains, sun paling, grooves and bends to things. This is the texture of Drift. It is a somewhat comfortable City, the chairs tend to be well-used and easy to sit in. It’s a place where one can slouch easily against a wall. 


Smells and Bells 

Because Drift is so gloomy, foggy, smoky, private, narrow and labyrinthine, the city has developed a parallel sensory language to communicate place and location. 

Businesses communicate themselves via scent. Places of business that don't have their own smell will license one from the council. any place that cooks is allowed to fan its scent about and all do,

though there are bylaws and arguments between places about the use of too much smell or spice. Other shops are allowed to communicate their presence through a registered system of scent markers. 

Coffee beans are popular in Drift, though not for drinking. Instead people carry small bags of them in deep narrow pockets. (Drift pockets can be so narrow and so deep that a special form of tongs for reaching into them is in common use). If they need their scent palate cleaning, they pull out the bag of beans and take a deep sniff. In the lee of this strong scent, which fades quickly, their sinuses regain some sensitivity and discretion which may have been lost throughout the day. 


Occupations by Scent 

Chandlers smell of beeswax. Blacksmiths of coal smoke and hot metal. Armourers of lapping powder. Jewellers of Ambergris and Furriers of Myrrh. Gambling houses smell of vinegar, Undertakers of Freesia. Tanners of urine, Fullers of urine and lanoline, Brewers of Hops but Pubs of Beer. Cobblers smell of leather and beeswax, Butchers of blood. Bookshops smell of their paper and each shop only sells books printed on paper from the same forest so each shop has a smell quite distinctive to keen readers but a seemingly random selection of books. Clerks smell like wig dust and aniseed, Lawyers of wormwood and brothels of Mint, the slighter and sweeter the mint smell the more expensive the brothel. Heralds have purple coats , and they are associated with the slight fish sauce smell from the marine snails used for that dye while Whisperers smell of Roses. Mediums smell of incense (the only profession allowed to burn it) and Fortune Tellers of fruitful hemp. Knackers smell of death. 


Locations by Bell 

Drift has a latticework of bells. Every quarter has a large Belltower which peals in an agreed sequence with each other quarter, with a slightly different tone and a different pattern to each. So Bells in Drift tell not so much time, (though an experienced habitant can tell time from the bells, due to micro differences in rhythm and pattern), but place. 

The large low-frequency bells are raised up about each quarter and below them in each Rue and Tangle, major notable buildings like Taverns, Temples or Cemeteries, have their own bells, set to higher pitches which get lost and trapped in the weave of alleyways and so don’t disrupt other quarters much, and rung in their own evolved patterns of rhythm. 

Some residences, usually at least one on each street, hang wind chimes outside their door; silver for the wealthy, wooden for the poor. 

So the city is covered and woven with a pattern of smells and bells such that those who know the place can easily find their way about, finding general locations by the Great Bells, smaller areas by lesser bells, and single businesses and houses by bell and by scent. 

This rolling wave of soft continual sound, underlaid by the sound of the sea and the moaning of the lamp of Mutability, can be somewhat hypnotic and disturbing for new visitors, but after a time one becomes accustomed to it, and ultimately, becomes an initiate, with the sensory net of the city making its structure and places as clear as day, regardless of the closeness and gloom. 



Public conversation in Drift is muffled or whispered. Crowds are never loud, (except possibly if there is a riot at the opera), but this seems to suit the mood and conventions of the city. 

Whispers do infiltrate through the alleyways like invisible snakes though, wyrms of muttered sound that fleet past, or curl and spiral, hunting questing, before disappearing into a turnaway or over a roof. 

These are not just whispers but Whispers; the substance of much communication in Drift and the main power of its Law. 

Professional Whisperers ply their trade in Drift City, seek the smell of Roses, then give them a lock of hair, or enough personal details, (always in riddle form and without mentioning names), and they can set a whisper to chase after someone, susurussing past others like a snake and resounding only in the ears of that one particular person. 

In most cases this is used only for urgent messages for those difficult to find, like a kind of aggressive Telegram service. Harassing or irrelevant Whispers are punished, (though small numbers of Criminal Whisperers exist). 

Whispers are also the primary method of policing in Drift and all the strongest ‘Blue’ Whisperers are licensed and well-paid members of the Constabulary who whisper under licence. 

If a whisper warrant is given for a suspect, name known or not, only enough details, or some fragments of hair or blood are needed, the Blue Whisperers send packs and flocks of dense whispers after that person, finding them wherever they are, slowly driving them mad with the continual imprecations of guilt and crime until they give themselves up or deafen themselves. 

Sadly the deaf are mistrusted in Drift for exactly this reason and often drawn into the world of Crime. 


Thin Aesthetic 

Long thin things are favoured in Drift. Shoes are usually pointed or square-toed, hats tall and, as we said, pockets very thin and very deep. One carries pocket tongs to reach things in there and these have their own inner pockets. Pocket tongs are not carried openly as this is a sign of criminality and there are polite genuflections to make if one must employ them in the street. Round people wear tall thin things and are called fools for doing so; ‘roundlings’ and ‘spheres’. 

Thin foods are preferred; slices are slender, baguettes long. Round foods are disapproved of; the soup bowls are square and sharp-cornered, or shaped like boats as are the spoons, which are like concave oars. Thin tall glasses and mugs are used. High-status banquets are cascades of spikes and verticality as the cities cooks, both living and dead, compete to out-do one another in how spired and slender a meal can be made. 

The poor subsist on noodles, long fries, eels in batter and long onions, all of which are actually pretty good. 

Cabs and carriages can by hired but they are all very slender, the axles about three feet across, so a carriage sits one, or two facing each other, or a sumptuous carriage can have two half-decks with two more seated above and behind those on the lower deck. These are quite unstable and special gyroscopes are made to keep them somewhat steady. 

The thin carriages are pulled by horses specially bred to be similarly thin; the "Driftwood Stretch" breed, a grey to white, somewhat inbred, slow but steady, good at finding their way and so thin they are uncomfortable for most to sit on. Yellow eyed, they are used almost entirely by the coachmen of Drift. They can walk as easily backwards as forwards, as easily uphill backwards as forwards, and can strafe or sidestep slowly. 


Strange Transports 

The city has numerous curious boutique travel forms designed to deal with its slopes and its dense and winding layout. Single-person micro cable-cars exist to take commuters upslope at high speed. Zipwires can get you downhill fast. Tower-contained hot-air balloon baskets can save you steps if you need to gain height. Micro-zeppelins are employed by Youths and the Police who pursue them. Registered roof-walks are marked by yellow rope but being seen on the roofs beyond the rope or after dark is an offence punishable by Whispering. 


A City Of Hucksters And Seers 

Seers, mediums, clairvoyants, hucksters, magicians and the like are legally protected and live TAX FREE in Drift, on a 'one drop' basis of possible accuracy or validity. A seer or prophet is judged so if there is even one drop of possibility that they might be right, or have accurate predictions or communications.  In order to deprive a Huckster of this protected status one must prove not only that they are wrong, but they are reliably and knowingly wrong, a near-impossible feat in court. 

Despite this legal protection and tax-free status, Drift is not completely overflowing with hucksters as there is quite a lot of competition for accurate soothsaying, too many futures for any single one to be worth worrying over. 

Yet the poor, the homeless, the criminal, drunk, deranged or absurd are all, in their own telling, ‘Mediums’, or diviners or soothsayers or something of the like, as groups or ‘organisations’ of such are always valid and cannot be easily harassed, no matter how very obviously drunk, criminal or homeless they are. 


Drift City Opera 

The major social event, and major social location, of the city, the opera itself; a massively vertical slender pie-slice with far too many fragile upper stories and its foundations excavated below floor level so seats beneath the performers can look up at them, with mirrors above the stage so those below can see what is happening at the rear of the stage. Excavations so deep that the floor of the opera house has fallen away and the basement is a pool of black water people sit there in little coracles to watch and hear the performance.

Tuesday 31 October 2023

the humanization of warfare Remarks from CALLINICUS by JBS Haldane

Because I just couldn't stay away from J.B.S. Haldane, because many of his shorter books are available for free here; as PDF's and because I have never read a defence of Chemical warfare, at all, and specifically not by someone who was themselves the victim of chemical warfare. 

This is also a fascinating dive into Haldanes inter-war world-view which includes some "problematic" content as usual (in addition to the central argument). 


Atomic Power; 

"We know very little about the structure of the atom and almost nothing about how to modify it. And the prospect of constructing such an apparatus seems to me to be so remote that, when some successor of mine is lecturing to a party spending a holiday on the moon, it will still be an unsolved (though not, I think, an ultimately insoluble) problem." 

In fact we would break the atom within a few decades of this statement, go to the moon within 40 years, after the atom was cracked. 


Blinding Gas; 

"Lachrymatory gas was only once used under ideal conditions—by the Germans in the Argonne in 1915. They captured a fairly extensive French trench system and about 2,400 prisoners, almost all unwounded, but temporarily blind." 

The Germans opened chemical warfare with blinding gas in 1915. I did not know this. New weapons seem staggeringly effective at first use. The enemy hasn't even imagined any defence. After that, as we shall see, the prizes tend to go to whomever can adapt fastest, not necessarily to the first user. 


Gassing the uneducated; 

"Gases of the first group were used in clouds discharged from cylinders, some- times on a front of several miles. 

They probably caused at least 20,000 casualties among unprotected or inadequately protected British troops. At least a quarter of these died, and that very painfully, in many cases after a struggle for breath lasting several days. 

On the other hand, of those who did not die almost all recovered completely, and the symptoms of the few who became permanent invalids were mainly nervous. 

Apart, however, from the extreme terror and agitation produced by the gassing of uneducated people, I regard the type of wound produced by the average shells as, on the whole, more distressing than the pneumonia caused by chlorine or phosgene." 

Just don't gas the 'uneducated' bro. This brings us into Haldane being something of a 'special' kind of person. He was raised experimenting on both animals and himself and had a detached, and definitely non-sacralised view of the human body. 


German antisemitism; 

"On the other hand, the German respirators were bad to begin with; and later on were not so good as the British. This was, apparently, because the most competent physiologist in Germany with any knowledge of breathing was a Jew. This fact was quite well known in German physiological circles, but apparently his race prevented the military authorities from employing him. 

The result was that they were unable to follow up their gas-attacks at all closely, but had to wait till the cloud had passed off, by which time resistance was again possible. That was how the Germans paid for anti-Semitism. It is very probable that it lost them the war, as never again, not even in March, 1918, had they as complete a gap in the Franco-British Western front as during the first gas-attack in April, 1915." 

I doubt it 'lost them the war' and I believe Haber was a Jew so clearly they weren't that anti-semitic yet but I have not heard of this particular story before. 


On Mustard Gas; 

"Someone placed a drop of the liquid on the chair of the director of the British chemical warfare department. He ate his meals off the mantelpiece for a month." 


"Thus in April, 1918, Armentieres, the original Northern limit of the German attack in Flanders, was so heavily shelled with “mustard” that the gutters in the streets were reported to be running with it." 


On fools holding back progress; 

the Bayardists have nobbled a curious assortment of allies in their so far successful attempt to prevent the humanization of warfare. 

"Mustard gas kills one man for every forty it puts out of action; shells kill one for every three; but their god who compromised with high explosives has not yet found time to adapt himself to chemical warfare." 


On the possibilities of 'Immune Infantry'; 

"On the other hand, some people are naturally immune. The American Army authorities made a systematic examination of the susceptibility of large numbers of recruits. They found that there was a very resistant class, comprising 20% of the white men tried, but no less than 80% of the negroes. This is intelligible, as the symptoms of mustard gas, blistering, and sun-burn are very similar, and negroes are pretty well immune to sunburn." 


Future War by Haldane; 

"One sees, then, the possibility of warfare on somewhat the following lines:— 

Heavy concentrations of artillery would keep an area say thirty miles in length and ten in depth continuously sprayed with mustard gas.


Suddenly, behind the usual barrage of high explosive shells appears a line of tanks supported by negroes in gas-masks.


In this way the side possessing a big superiority of mustard gas should be in a position to advance two or three miles a day.


It seems, then, that mustard gas would enable an army to gain ground with far less killed on either side than the methods used in the late war, and would tend to establish a war of movement leading to a fairly rapid' decision, as in the campaigns of the past. 

It would not much upset the present balance of power, Germany's chemical industry being counterpoised by French negro troops. Indians may be expected to be nearly as immune as negroes." 


The Morality of Chemical Warfare; 

"I claim, then, that the use of mustard gas in war on the largest possible scale would render it less expensive of life and property, shorter, and more dependent on brains rather than numbers. We are often told the exact opposite, 

In one or two air-raids on other towns it seems probable that the Germans were not far from out-stripping the capacities of the fire- brigades and producing very large conflagrations." 

His aside into the ability of aerial bombing to produce 'fire-storms', where the fire becomes so hot and vast it sucks in air like a tornado and becomes highly self-sustaining, is a disturbing prefigurement of the next war. 


Animal-Loving Soldiers; 

"We have got to get over our distaste for scientific thought and scientific method. To take an example from the war, the physiologists at the experimental ground at Porton, in Hampshire, had considerable difficulty in working with a good many soldiers because the latter objected so strongly to experiments on animals, and did not conceal their contempt for people who performed them. And yet these soldiers would have had no hesitation in shelling the horses of hostile gun-teams, and the vast majority of them were in the habit of shooting animals for sport. " 

The British being a race of animal-lovers who often have no problem shooting animals is a neverending source of incoherent rage for Haldane. 


Objections to Reason; 

"One of the grounds given for objection to science is that science is responsible for such horrors as those of the late war. “You scientific men (we are told) never think of the possible application of your discoveries. You do not mind whether they are used to kill or to cure. Your method of thinking, doubtless satisfactory when dealing with molecules and atoms, renders you insensible to the difference between right and wrong. And so you devise the means of universal destruction,"    

"..and I note that the people who make these remarks do not refuse to travel by railway or motor-car, to use electric light, or to read mechanically printed newspapers. Nor do they install a well in their back-gardens to enjoy drinking the richer water of a pre-scientific age, with its interesting and variegated fauna." 


The Deadliness of scale vs the deadliness of weapons; 

"Moreover, the Great War was the first since the Second Punic War of the 3rd century B. C. between two great civilized nations, each fighting with all its might. This fact accounts for its ferocity. Modern transport and hygiene made its scale possible; the weapons used merely served to prolong it." 


Fear of the Unknown; 

"Now, terror of the unknown is thoroughly right and rational so long as we believe that the prince of this world is a malignant being. But it is not justifiable if we believe that the world is the expression of a power friendly to our aspirations, or if we are atheists and hold that it is neutral and indifferent to human ideals." 



"The views which I have expressed do not coexist in the mind of any party leader or newspaper proprietor, and must therefore be those of a crank. But until some stronger argument can be waged against them than that they are unusual and unpleasant, there remains the possibility that they are true." 


Haldanes vision of Future War, what would have actually happened? 

Can we imagine a world where J.B.S. Haldane is given enough power and support to make his vision of warfare a reality? What would happen? 

We begin with the mass development of Mustard Gas, sealed tanks and uniforms, the training of vast numbers of 'Immune Troops', (presumably black Africans with white officers), and we would assume, development of a wide range of other chemical weapons and delivery systems. 

So, day one of combat; mass firing of chemical shells begins, ideally blocking off large areas of the battlefield. Then the 'Immune Troops' advance with sealed armour support, easily taking lines and targets, presumably making use of lesser or alternative chem weapons as and when they would be useful.

 Thats your first battle, if it goes well. 

Of course even if it goes well, we know Mustard Gas remains horrible for a long time, so the battle zone will be very difficult for anyone other than Immune Troops to occupy. And if you advance non-immune troops through it on trucks then how will you keep them supplied through the zone, and what if they need to retreat? They will have a chemical barrier to their rear. 

And of course, following Haldanes plan, you are using largely colonial troops to defend yourself, who may not agree completely with you on all points and who may be a bit ambivalent about entering chemical hell for you. 

And presuming this is a WW1/WW2 situation, you are probably doing this in France, and the French may not be chuffed about you melting and poisoning their lovely countryside. 

Thats battle One. How do the enemy respond? 

Presumably the enemy is Germany, and they are quite good at chemistry, even without their Jews. (Though the loss of them will hurt them). 

They are also quite well-organised. Presumably they will be shocked and terrified to begin with, but will adapt fast. This is assuming they didn't have intelligence on your chemical weapons programme already and have their own programme. 

They will start work on, and improve, their own chem weapons and protective wear as quickly as possible. 

This is the 'brains over brawn' warfare that Haldane envisions in which victory goes to whomever has the best tech and adapts most quickly. 

But, speaking from the West, where we certainly _think_ we have the brains and our assumed enemies largely have the brawn, do even we want to disconnect war so totally from the flesh it affects as to turn it into a matter of competing technologies? 

If Haldane is right, less people will die. Less of our own people will die. (_If_ he is right.) But is this most-efficient form of hyper-tech chemical warfare what we want to create? 

(Of course your chem-war is also highly dependant on weather; wind direction, rain, perhaps temperature. And these conditions will be known, so what happens if the enemy attacks with the wind. When the wind is blowing one direction they advance with chem-suit Immune Troops', when the wind turns, you advance.) 

Chem weapons would probably be most useful against civilians who have not already experienced them, and most useful when combined with surprise and some other method of attack. This provides a neat combination with incendiary bombing and the creation of a 'Firestorm'. Combining gas with bombs cripples the ability of a city to respond to spreading fires, making a mass conflagration much easier to attain. 

Is the natural tendency of technology in warfare to separate the flesh of the people from the conduct of the war, up until some certain point when the burning and poisoning of all the people becomes the main material of the war? 

Haldane thinks 'stupid' Chivalric wars are made deadlier primarily by their scale and not by technology. That if WW1 had been fought by spears and shields it would have been just as deadly, because of the number of men involved.



Trying to deal with Haldanes argument 

Is not Conservatism at its most rational and reasonable when considering the development of new weapons and methods of war? 

Are we not all the beneficiaries of the deep and innate conservatism and ritualisation of warfare by the stodgy midwits who make up much of the officer class?" 

Could we say that short lethal but evaporating violence could be more honourable than the soft, suffocating violence of Chemical Warfare. Would you rather be gassed or shot? Would you rather gas others or shoot them? 

War is not an experiment and is not predictable 

There are few 'controlled elements' 

Everyone is in a heightened state and is, essentially, not quite the person they are outside of war 

War evolved, grows, changes and mutates in deepy unpredictable ways. Neither the people, the aims, the methods or the morals of those engaged in war are the same as they were at the beginning 

this being the case, a highly conservative ritualised view of war, while probably deeply inefficient, and essentially getting people killed in the short to medium term, is actually pretty good for humanity as a whole in the long term and the larger scale 

when we are in a war we want to adapt, kill and destroy as quickly and efficiently as possible, for our enemies death is our life 

but looking at any particular arrangement of wars from far outside the time and place of their happening; we really want wars in general to be stodgy, ritualised, uninventive, unimaginative, foolish and slow

The slow stupidity of any particular war is agony and horror for those fighting it, for their enemy is .. well the enemy, but for those looking upon all war, and upon the future of the species and of life itself, the enemy is not the enemy but the enemy is the cunning, inventiveness, hunger and unpredictability of war itself, for it is a kaleidoscope-tiger, always shifting and trying to escape its cage.


Saturday 7 October 2023

A Review of 'Possible Worlds' by J.B.S. Haldane

This book is a lucid scrying pool amidst in the dark and murky inter-war years. It is like stumbling through a grey and misty land and discovering a cave within which crouches a wizard who gazes into clear and glittering pool crystal visions of a future time.

We are in that future time right now and it has turned out to be just as dark and murky as the bog around the wizards cave, but we can look upwards, at the point of view of his scrying pool, where presumably he looks down on us from the past, and wave 'Hello' to the Wizard.

We are looking at Haldane looking at us and that is where much of the interest arises.


I read this based on its near-unanimous recommendation by anyone involved in the life sciences and I was surprised, (though perhaps I should not have been), to find another WW1 connection. As well as occupying seemingly every role possible related to genetics and biology in the inter-war years, Haldane was a WW1 veteran, a grenades expert with the Black Watch (for non-military and U.S. readers the Black Watch is generally considered a very high-competence if not elite regiment).

I would love to shove Haldane, the atheist communist, Studdert-Kennedy, the fallen Anglican and Sebastian Junger, the medieval knight and not-quite Fascist, all in a room together and have them talk it out. It would be a hell of a debate.


'Possible Worlds' was originally a series of newspaper articles written for 'the ordinary man' 'in intervals between research work and teaching and largely on railway trains'.

These are about science, biology, the scientific life, the future of humanity and Haldane. Many are short, all are clear. A very blessed clarity considering the dithering and extemperous blathering and 'chummy' simplifications of much science writing both now and then. Haldane writes like a man who does not have much time and earnestly wants to get to the point.

Some are so simple and so clear and highlight or describe a concept so exactly that nearly 100 years later they are still being quoted mentioned and recommended today

'On Scales' regards thinking about reaches or scales of time and distance far beyond our immediate ken. If you have watched the Sagan video, or its modern repetitions then you have seen a visual version of this essay.

'On Being the Right Size' is quoted or mentioned in many discussions of biodynamics I know of;

"You can drop a mouse down a thousand-yard mine shaft; and, on arriving at the bottom, it gets a slight shock and walks away, so long as the ground is fairly soft. A rat is killed, a man is broken, a horse splashes."


Haldane had a lot of sketchy ideas, the most provably-awful are probably being a freestyle vivisectionist, a Communist and a Chemical Warfare enthusiast.

Haldane grew up experimenting on animals with his dad, he was quite willing to experiment on himself, to the extent of drinking dilute hydrochloric acid, sealing himself inside sealed atmosphere chambers and slowly removing the oxygen and attempting experimental diving suits at the age of 13, (not all at the same time). If you added some sadism and race-hatred he would probably have done well in various German or Japanese labs during the oncoming war, but Haldane had little hatred in him, and no sadism, he seems to have regarded the animals around him, and his own body, the way a farmer regards a horse or dog; useful, interesting, necessary, valuable, but not sacred. He reported that, (like Junger), he enjoyed killing people quite a bit. He was an explosives expert, wrote a book on the benefits of chemical warfare and thought it was stupid not to use more mustard gas than we did.

He belongs in that very slightly discomforting margin of humanity who will quite happily take living beings, including themselves, apart in laboratories and their fellow man apart in wars, but won't do it freestyle, for pleasure, for no reason or to anyone who asks them not to (except in war).

In 'Some Enemies of Science' Haldane recommends the complete deregulation of vivisection in the interests of science and of popular science.

"... I killed two rats in the course of experimental work intended to advance medical science. One of them, if we can judge from human experience (and we have no more direct means of evaluating the consciousness of animals), died after a period of rather pleasant delirium like that of alcoholic intoxication. The other had convulsions, and may have been in pain for three or four minutes. I should be very thankful if I knew that I should suffer no more than it did before my death. It therefore seems ridiculous that, wheras my wife" [she had poisoned rats] "is encouraged by the Government and the Press, I should be compelled to apply to the President of the Royal Society and other eminent man of science for signature to an application to the already overworked Home Secretary, before I can even kill a mouse in a slightly novel manner."

Haldanes arguments for the deregulation of Vivisection are strong, coherent, logical and possibly a little mad. His unrelenting hatred for the 'Anti-Vivisectionists' whose hypocrisy, delusion and hatred of science is stopping him from killing mice in novel ways, is genuine, deeply felt and extremely expressed. He is really outraged about the mouse-chopping.

If Haldanes Lassaiz-Fiare Vivisection policy had been made real, the results would have been interesting, but probably more bad than good. Mouse-chopping should be licensed.

Like most high-I.Q. lefties in the inter-war years, Haldane was a Marxist and a Communist. He was wrong and held on to the idea too long. You can tell how sane an inter-war western intellectual was by the date they stopped believing in Communism. Cordwainer Smith, Rebecca West and Bertrand Russel; quite soon, the French; never.

Haldane went full-Commie in the mid 30's, when the saner types were already leaving. He objected to Lysenkos imaginary genetics in 1949 but didn't leave and finally resigned from the Communist Party in 1956. In 1957 he resigned from being British over the Suez incident and went off to spend his final years in India. His stupid murder-god had failed in front of him, Britian was still masturbating to dreams of Imperialism so he took the third way. I think he was also attracted to India because  it was here that the direct connection with nature, vast range of life and ability to deal with large populations was closest to the experimental world of his early youth. (He grew up as the son of an aristocrat-scientist the late 19th century.) By the mid 20th century the U.K. was even more intensely urbanised and Haldanes dream of widespread 'Citizen Science' based on animal collections, (and vivisection), and interacting with nature was looking less and less possible. But in India, more space, more nature, and a great diversity of people.

In 1925 he also wrote 'Callinicus: A Defence of Chemical Warfare', which I have not read but his defence of Mustard Gas in 'Possible Worlds' is based on the relative bodily destructive power of machine guns and Mustard Gas. His logic is very like that of the pro-Vivisection argument which is "If we are eating animals and hunting animals why can't I chop them up when I like since I have very good reasons for doing so?" "Likewise, if we are machine gunning each other and bombing each other (ask me how), why not gas each other since it will have the same effect & less human bodies will be destroyed in the process?"

Against Haldanes iron logic I can only offer the midwits response of 'I think that might not turn out the way you think it will'.

He was also an atheist, which I don't consider amongst his terrible and questionable ideas but it is slightly boring from a modern-day perspective, listening to him go on about it is a bit dull. Its interesting to hear from his perspective about how cowardly and useless most Christian Padres were in the war, even more interesting that he signals out for rare praise; the Quakers, for their Pacifistic ambulance-driving and more war service.


Haldane has largely (and inadvertently) convinced me that scientists shouldn't get involved in politics. They have no intuitive grasp on what politics is on any level, assuming it to be some kind of social machine to produce 'optimum results'.

They should be consulted closely on their special subjects, should not set policy and generally should be kept in special boxes far from the levers of power.

This applies especially to biologists and other life-science types, especially the more intelligent sort. Their deep understanding of the processes of nature and the human body has been bought at the price of any intuitive grasp of the meaning of nature or the human body and a scientist, if allowed near policy, if asked not to investigate but to decide, will proceed on the basis of optimisation towards a concrete goal, as if they were dealing with a malfunctioning machine.

This is not what society, a nation or humanity is.

Furthermore, there are politicians whom it is necessary to have make decisions and who must be fired afterwards. During Covid most possible choices carried serious moral hazard. Decisions had to be made. Those decisions would by necessity have terrible effects on someone. After the emergency had passed those decisions must be rejected by the very populations that required them and the decision-makers disposed of. This is unpleasant but it is the nature of things. If we had hyper-expert scientists actually making those decisions instead of advising on them, firstly they would proceed on the basis of blind optimisation as stated above, secondly when we inevitably had to turn against them after the emergency was over, we would lose, not a fundamentally-replaceable politician, but a useful expert, and finally because the necessary moral hazard of those choices would ultimately reflect not on one individual or administration but on the scientist and on science itself. Fauci, before he dies, may well drag virology in the U.S. back into the stone age, purely as part of the counter-reaction to his mistakes.


We live in a new age of Eugenics, though we don't quite realise it yet.

Really, any form of Eugenics that becomes common enough stops being thought of as 'Eugenics'. It’s not a completely sliding scale but it’s pretty slippery. Condoms, I.U.D.s the Pill, sonic scans of developing foetus' and risk-free Abortions are all fruit of the Eugenic tree.

Hasidic Jewish populations are already using genome sequencing to avoid dangerous genetic combinations in their (arguably quite inbred) community.

Genome sequencing is becoming cheaper and cheaper, more and more accurate, and the power of algorithms to predict and control for certain desired qualities in the genome is becoming more and more effective.

(Reading between the lines of various Geneticists, its probably possible to run an algo on a range of IVF foetuses and select for high I.Q. Even though I.Q. is insanely polygenic and we have no idea how it works, the algo doesn't need to understand that and can just find relationships regardless. The reason this hasn't been done publicly isn't because it can't be done but because Geneticists are nuclear-avoidant of talking about it or doing it.

Theoretical - likely someone has already tried selecting IVF foetuses for I.Q. and these children have been born.)

Haldane only writes directly about this once in 'Possible Worlds', though as a Genetor-Prime of the British Empire, he knew as much about it as anyone of his generation, and as the ever-lucid and prescient Haldane, he could predict more than most of his generation.

In 'Eugenics and Social Reform', Haldane is.. mixed. Ultimately he thinks it’s necessary and probably inevitable but we shouldn't do it now as we don't know what we are doing and it’s probably more complex than we think.

On 'feeble-mindedness', the majority of which I take to be Downs Syndrome, Haldane might be surprised that it is not a hereditary problem, that we can't find it in the parents genes but can find it through embryo testing and more commonly, through scans, and that we are largely utterly ruthless in aborting the vast majority of such children. Perhaps he wouldn't be surprised. Perhaps our relationship with Downs Syndrome is more like how our relationship with Eugenics will proceed, not but grand unified programmes but by quiet invisible decisions made by parents in doctors offices, made with ever-increasing data and in invisibly-shifting social consensus, and made silently and not spoken of.

What Haldane seems to be saying is that the rich, intelligent and successful, inevitably put themselves out of genetic buisness by not breeding at a replacement level. They are always outweighed by the poor or common who breed a lot more. This seems to have been true in Haldanes time, looks to have been true for much of European history, and is true now. (Despite going on about this at length and being married twice, and being pretty well-off, Haldane had no children.)

Yet we still have rich, successful and intelligent people. Whether we have as much as we did in Haldanes time it’s hard to tell but it doesn't seem that different. 

Probably we do not really understand how this works at all, especially on a larger scale and across deep reaches of time.

'On Eugenics and Social Reform' is a must-read because of the ideas it deals with, its weaving sometimes-ironic arguments and the pretty explosive mind-bombs, both when considered as cold intellectual arguments which might apply the same from his time to ours, and for the wild and whacky cultural Messines-level mines woven into every part of it as you listen to an aristocratic, Marxist, inter-war atheist high-Anglo scientist drop... comments;

"It was only the emancipation of the negroes which saved the United States from twice its present black population. This event gave them access to alcohol, venereal diseases, and consumption."

I think (if I understand his total argument), that I might agree with Haldane? Eugenics is probably inevitable, but we don't understand it and probably shouldn't do it, especially on a large scale or in a top-down way. Hopefully, like Pratchetts Dwaven Bread, it will remain 'probably inevitable', inevitably.


Probably Haldanes most beautiful idea is in the essay which gives this collection its name; 'Possible Worlds'.

This is basically that Dr Doolittle will create a University of Animal Minds to help unify our theories of physics and philosophy into a Unified theory of Everything.

Perhaps only Haldane or someone very like him could have come close to having this idea because only Haldane was enough of a batty polymath to allow it. He was deeply enmeshed in the life sciences, genetics, the world of blood and animals, and was intelligent enough to also be deeply interested in and largely up to date in physics, mathematics, logic and for him the natural companion of those; philosophy.

He was thinking always of the Whole Thing, of Reality itself, and all these little strands were just ways of getting there and looking at it.

One of Haldanes predictions that never came as true as he would have wished was that we would 'talk to the animals'. In his future Humanity would gain a deep understanding of animal psychology and communication and in effect, be able to communicate with and understand the world-views of other living beings.

This has not worked out that well but Haldanes synthesis is that the fundamental nature of reality is necessarily opaque to us because the way we are made fundamentally limits us from apprehending it. As enmeshed in both biology and philosophy as he was, he could conceive of something like a Fundamental Human Blind Spot. This wouldn't really be a 'spot' but whole areas and methods of thought that would be not only impossible but, more importantly, inconcievable, to us.

Like there are ways of thinking and perceiving that you literally can't think about and if you try to conceive of them then your mind will just loop around them like an ant walking along a mobius strip, without ever even considering them.

The point here being; how do you try to understand that which you are inherently made not to understand?

In 'Possible Worlds' Haldane tries to begin imagining the philosophy of reality of a Bee, or a hyper-intelligent Barnacle. Since they occupy reality in a fundamentally different way their structure of reality, the pattern of their thought, perceptions and therefore, philosophy, would be utterly different.

Yet if we accept that we are all perceiving the same Reality, the Bee and the Barnacle would both have world-views which ultimately coincide or match up with ours. So if we could learn the 'language' of, or enter in communion with, Bee and Barnacle, we could learn something of their Paradigm and that might help us see the gaps in our own, to ask the questions previously inconceivable to us.

(A slightly boring and lessened version of this which might sound less weird and whacky to a modern reader is like in a Star Trek world where there are a bunch of forehead aliens and we can fly off to this or that alien world and talk to them and learn their weird alien physics and philosophies which are all very strange and different but which still actually work, if we could learn them, we might understand more about reality. Except we don't have aliens but we do have Bees and Barnacles.)


Haldanes last article is a deep-time Science Fiction story in the report of a Venusian historian describing the death of Earth in forty million years time.

This future is one in which humanity has diverged into two species which, curiously, match the dystopian futures imagined by many 20tC authors; the engineered, happy, incurious and unadventurous sybarites similar to the humanity of 'Brave New World', and the Venusian Collective who are a mix of the Borg and the final evolution of the society depicted in 'We'.

This is a reality where rocketry is very very hard, (Haldane had not yet seen the V2s landing on London, let alone the Space Race), and where moving between planets takes multi-thousand-year plans, including engineering specific new versions of Humanity to live on them. Therefore, Humanity barely leaves earth and only a bunch of radicals get to Venus. Terran Man monopolises the tidal gravatic power of the Moon to energise their vast aesthetic schemes of global pleasure, which speeds up the moons descent into the earth. Terran man can't be bothered to stop this and eventually the two crash into each other, though not without a few thousand years of excitingly apocalyptic but still-liveable earth with the moon gigantic in the sky, vast discs and spumes of lunar matter forming a silver river in the air, mountains quaking, seas rolling around the planet, its pretty great stuff.

Haldane absorbed in Deep Time and the meaning, if any, of humanity, exhibits all of his elegance, imagination, mediocrity, didactic authoritarianism and weakness.

"If it is true, as the higher religions teach, that the individual can only achieve a good life by conforming to a plan greater than his own, it is our duty to realize the possible magnitude of such a plan, whether it be God's or man's. Only so can we come to see that most good actions merely serve to stave off the constant inroads of chaos on the human race. They are necessary, but not sufficient. They cannot be regarded as active co-operation in the Plan. The man who creates a new idea, whether expressed in language, art or invention., may at least be co-operating actively. The average man cannot do this, but he must learn that the highest of his duties is to assist those who are creating and the worst of his sins to hinder them."


Monday 18 September 2023

Four Books on War

“ .. Belgium’s leading living poet whose life before 1914 had been a flaming dedication to socialist and humanitarian ideals that were then believed to erase national lines. He prefaced his account with this dedication: “He who writes this book in which hate is not hidden was formerly a pacifist … For him no disillusionment was ever greater or more sudden. It struck him with such violence that he thought himself no longer the same man. And yet, as it seems to him that in this state of hatred his conscience becomes diminished, he dedicates these pages, with emotion, to the man he used to be.” – Tuchman quoting Emile Verhaeren in ‘The Guns of August’.



It’s pretty quiet in the shop on a night shift. This lead me to fulfil a long-time promise to myself to finally read Barbara Tuchmans ‘The Guns of August’, her celebrated history of the opening weeks of World War One. 

At the time I also had two books of WW1 poetry on the shelf, both from less currently-popular poets, which I had picked up because I wanted to find out what the actual man-on-the-street/jingo poetry of the war was like. 

At about the same time a friend online mentioned the Manga ‘Onwards Towards Our Noble Deaths’, which I grabbed a copy of. 

·        Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths by Shigeru Mizuki.

·        The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman.

·        The Poetry of Jesse Pope.

·        Rough Rhymes of a Padre by ‘Woodbine Willie’.


So, with one very long book and three quite short ones, having finished ‘Guns of August’ why not add the rest and make an event out of it? (Because its stressful and depressing as hell but, being in idiot, I had not fully processed that.)



The Guns of August 

(Tuchman is actually a character in her own book too. 
She is the little girl interviewed by the American Ambassador about the British hunt for a German Battleship in the Med.)

Reading this book was like having a low-level panic attack, at times I had to get up and walk about to de-stress. At times it didn’t really matter who’s side I was on (the book is on the side of the Allies). I wouldn’t have thought a beat by beat breakdown of the days and hours before the second battle of Tannenberg, between Imperial Germans and Tsarists, would have me biting my nails and shouting at the screen (in my mind) but it did. 


The intensity, vividness, complexity and madness of the fog of war can, even when dealing with armies and factions I don't care much about, cause a kind of disaster-driven engagement. 

The book is a kind of anti-procedural. Instead of a cast of characters who are very good at things facing a big problem, working out what to do and coming together at the last minute against the odds, we have a massive spread of characters, all struggling against each other in big teams, arguing, perceiving and acting in different ways and coming together catastrophically, against the odds. 

It is the tension of confusion, the agony of crippled or misguided plans. Everyone has their own little section of reality and is struggling to do what they think they should and absolutely everyone is deluded, mistaken, or wrong. 

We, as the minds-eye of Tuchman, fly and flow across the battlefields, seeing more than any single person at that time ever could, simultaneously aware, as no-one living through those events ever could be, of the mutual, asynchronous and chaotic reality stuttering forth across the western front, an orchestra of staccato mistuned instruments, playing in blind opposition. Like two teams of Jazz musicians separated by a curtain, each group told to improvise and at the same time, to precisely counter the improvisation of the other side. Except no-one on either team actually likes each other. 

It is one thing to be locked in a story with your heroes point of view and to see thing going wrong. It is quite another to be slightly above that point of view, to see more of the situation than your protagonist, and to see why things are going wrong, in ways they can't. This is where the agony comes in, and yet another thing to zip across the scene, into the point of view of the antagonist, who is in fact the hero of their own story, and who’s enemy is the original hero, and to also see their schemes going wrong, and to see why they are going wrong. 


At the same time we are living in the future of these events and know that no-ones plans will go as expected and no-one (except maybe the Americans) will come out of this well - for all this striving we are watching a continent take itself apart. 

so really a poly-agony 

a poly-agonist history 


Irony, Readability and Satire 

Oh, the Kaiser and his whacky schemes, his military-style sleeping gown. The dithering-to-the-point-of-wooly-mania British Cabinet, the top-down but extremely secret and authoritarian French plans,

or French Plan, which can only be executed by having one guy in charge, and that guy not really telling the government what’s going on - was nearly the Dictator of France during the opening parts of the war, the SECRET DEALS, the French and their obsession with red pantaloons, Russia having the exact opposite of a Philosopher King - a guy genuinely dense but not quite dumb or weak willed enough to do a Coup against or just shuffle off to a Palace somewhere, all of this is part of what makes the book so readable and such a good and complex synthesis of history. 

But there is a danger to irony, in its distance, its easy synthesis and perhaps most in its argument-without-arguing. Tuchmans is a narrative history and, looking for the most interesting criticisms of the book I found that it was easy to avoid many of the more broad and obvious statements by claiming “well, Tuchman doesn’t really say that”. 

But what does she say? 

She makes few absolute and explicit value judgements, but the whole thing is an intense and vivid value judgement, only communicated through choice of detail, focus, method and rhythm of communication. A storyteller is not making a specific argument, one can hardly counter point-by-point, but they are convincing you of a something more ably than someone making a more explicit, leaden, and less persuasive statement. 


Hair-Thin Cracks In History 

the Russians being so badly organised that they start sending their orders for the next day out in Clear radio signal instead of code - this having a massive effect on the next days pivotal battle. 

Von Moltkes apprehension that the German line is too extended and loose, communicated just a day too late. 

The sheer and staggering number of times that personality conflicts between generals leads to serious problems in the war effort - they are as neurotic and sensitive as cats. 

It feels like there were not just one but a whole range of time-travellers zipping about making sure a series of cataclysmic co-incidences did and did not take place. 

Is this just the natural pixel-resolution of all history, made much more visible through this well-recorded super-crisis? Or were things genuinely more utterly bollocked than ever before? It truly is a kind of science fictional 19th century war; radio’s, codes, rail plans, the Germans bring an actual super-gun. World War One seems to take place at a fringe of complexity where nations and governments have just enough technological and organisational power to organise truly insanely massive groups, plans and actions but just not enough experience, or rapid or subtle enough technology, decision plans, structures, feedback systems or ideas to deal with the results of that complexity. 

Its curious how everyone seems to ‘play to type’. The Germans are angry and somewhat autistic, the French have a cartesian top-down view of everything, the British are dithery and pull something out of their arseholes at the last minute, the Russians are brutal, slow and fall apart. Is this just a feature of Tuchmans re-telling? I recently finished Julian Jacksons biography of De Gaule and he had a somewhat tragic view of European history in which no-one ever really changes and nations are fated to play out the conflicts of their essential character again and again over time. 


Criticisms Of Tuchman 

What are the most coherent, specific and least-whiney criticisms of Tuchman? 

The clearest is that for a book about the start of World War One, there is relatively little about whatever was going on between Serbia, Austria, Germany and Russia around and after the assassination. Neither is there a huge amount about the eastern front. 

She goes on a lot about how awful the Germans were in Balgium, but they were. 

Sir John French comes out as a borderline treasonous jumbled coward. His general reputation in history doesn’t seem anywhere nearly as bad as in this book, has anyone written about that? 


Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths 

A manga by a sweet old man; Shigeru Mizuki


This cute little guy! About the experiences of his youth! In east Asia. In the 1940s..

As part of the Imperial Japanese army.... 


Familiar Things 

I have read a few soldier-autobiographies including, oddly enough, 'Quartered Safe Out Here' by George McDonald Frasier, which is about some Cumbrian soldiers in the British army, fighting the Japanese Imperial Army, not in the same place, but in a similar environment. 

A few things flow between them; hunger, boredom, incoherent orders, officers and sergeants ranging from stupid to decent, the jungle being beautiful yet horrible, being permanently sweaty, dirty, hungry and damp, accidents and disease taking people out more regularly than the enemy, "there are people hiding in the Jungle", people popping out of holes or shooting at you from trees and whatever, if you see a dot in the sky better scatter till you know whose it is. 

It’s just guys hanging out you know!

just some guys having a time.


It’s curious to see the 'villains' from Quartered Safe Out Here' from the other side. The main difference between the forces, from the perspective of a common soldier, seems to be that, in the Imperial Japanese Army, literally everything is worse in every conceivable way. 

The Japanese soldiers are insanely hungry, on half a cup of rice a day, about 500 calories.


Instead of being shouted at and condescended to by officers and sergeants the new boys are literally slapped repeatedly in the face and punched to the ground. This is when they do something wrong, or just for existing. The end of a normal day is almost lining up to be repeatedly brutally slapped in the face for no reason



Their officers, or at least some of them, or many of them much of the time, are in a death cult. 

Their immediate commanding officer seems to fantasise pretty much continually about executing a Banzai charge and going to an 'honourable death' to the extent that he has to be talked out of it whenever a crisis happens, and eventually they can't talk him out of it.




The central 'plot element' of the book is that the Lieutenant finally manages to order the suicidal midnight jungle Banzai charge of his dreams. 

HQ finds out about this and valorises their noble sacrifice, making it a point of propaganda; the Japanese soldier never surrenders! When they are finally doomed they do a mass Banzai! For the Emperor! 

But because it was dark and the jungle a bunch of soldiers manage not to get themselves killed and get lost. Come morning they meet up and decide to go get some food before trying to Banzai themselves again. 

When this gets back to HQ, that there are still guys alive from the suicide charge, it becomes a major problem and an officer is sent down the river to re-Banzai them, at sword or gunpoint if necessary  (he shouldn't join them of course). 

The author was part of this outpost and either got ill or was knocked out by bombs during the whole thing, went missing and only got back after the remnants had been 're-Banzai'd'. This left him..  sceptical of war. 


Hell in the Pacific 

Looking into the war in the Pacific and the Imperial Japanese Army was definitely on a vibe.

The Imperial Army ate quite a lot of people, specifically they ate quite a lot of Indians, often alive, carving out the flesh of their thighs while they were still living and throwing them in a ditch to die while they ate them like steak. There are accusations that some officers ate their own men. 

I don't really know where to go from here..


The Poetry of Jesse Pope 

I picked this up I think after hearing it referenced in an episode of 'In Our Time'. 

I wanted to hear about the war poets who were not of the alienated faction, I wanted the Patriots and jingoists. WW1 has been re-written in our imagination, well perhaps not entirely re-written, but re-emphasised, reorganised and reset around the 'sad victim soldier' stereotype and the 'vague cataclysm' tale. 

These views have a lot of truth to them, they are not really 'lies', there were a lot of sad victim soldiers and it was a vague stumbling cataclysm, but the left likes to remember things a certain way

and the popular imagination of WW1 has essentially been transmitted by the left; Siegfried Sassoon, Pat Barker, All Quiet on the Western Front. I mean think of a WW1 tale and you know what you are going to get (in the anglo/westosphere at least) Amilie, Blackadder, you know the scenes, the characters, the tone, the mud and the vague emotional tenor that hangs over it all. 

Peter Jacksons documentary about WW1 ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’, had an interesting piece of editing which exemplified this. It’s based on interviews with soldiers. The opening interviews are all have a relatively positive view of the war, while the voices at the end all have a negative view. The way they are distributed creates the impression of the grieving 'sad soldier' who went in with high spirits and was crushed and alienated by the experience of the war. But, both of those strands, those interviews and recordings, are taken from the same people, all recorded long after the war. It is their dividing up and the way they are edited which creates the nice neat moral story of the 'sad soldier', not the actual recordings themselves. 

The views of a lot of WW1 soldiers, certainly of a lot of Anglosphere soldiers (the ones I am familiar with) might well strike a modern ear as not what they were expecting at all. many of those men were proud of their service and convinced they fought in a good cause, to save Europe and the world from Prussian militarism. 

Those recordings wouldn't be free of trauma and dead friends but the moral view those men had of their own actions, the weight and colour they placed on various parts, would be very different to that of later generations. 

That is why I wanted to read the poetry of Jessie Pope, because it was the popular poetry of the Daily Mail, the actually-popular poetry of the opening years of the war. The actual voice of the time rather than the remembered voice. 

I also wanted to know if she was as utterly awful as the historians claim she was. 

She was.. not *quite* as bad.. entirely 

but still pretty bad 


"A Humble Appeal 

She was a pretty, nicely mannered mare,

The children's pet, the master's pride and care,

Until a man in khaki came one day,

Looked at her teeth, and hurried her away.


With other horses packed into a train

She hungered for her masters voice in vain;

And later, led 'twixt planks that scare and slip,

They slung her, terrified, on board a ship.


Next came, where thumps and throbbing filled the air,

Her first experience of mal de mare;

And when that oscillating trip was done

They hitched her up in traces to a gun.


She worked and pulled and sweated with the best;

A stranger now her glossy coat caressed

Till flashing thunderstorms came bursting round

And splitting leaden hail bestrewed the ground.


With quivering limbs, and silky ears laid back,

She feels a shock succeed a sharper crack,

And, whinnying her pitiful surprise,

Staggers and falls, and tries in vain to rise.


Alone, forsaken, on a foreign field

What moral does this little record yield?

Who tends the wounded horses in the war?

Well that is what the Blue Cross league is for."


Many of the poems are quite interesting. Not all the rhymes are leaden or as faintly ridiculous as the one above. There is a lot of early stuff from 1914 to 1916 in praise of ANZACS, the soldiers, the war. She is not as bigoted or wrathful as a really hardcore blood and soil type but is more glib, positive, patriotic, a booster-upper cheering from the sides of the football match (a football match is one of the metaphors used in the poems), there are fragments of sort-of feminist stuff about war-girls doing jobs. 

I went in for Jesse Pope and what I got was pretty much what I half expected, a very British Church-Hall type quite common before the 1960’s. That she doesn’t seem to write much after 1916 means we don’t see any development. She is more shallow than evil and so tea-stained mildly bad a poet that I would feel bad for making fun of her.

(The BBC of all people argues here that the Pope vs Owen match is a stitch-up).



Rough Rhymes of a Padre


Willie is G. A. Studdert-Kennedy, an Anglican Priest who served as a chaplain on the western front and gained the name ‘Woodbine Willie’ for offering wounded and dying soldiers Woodbine cigarettes. 

This book ‘Rough Rhymes’ was mainly written in and around the front. 

Its great virtue for this review is that it is a direct and explicit search for meaning. Mizuki, with whom Willie would perhaps have had some things in common is, in ‘On Towards Our Noble Deaths’ seemingly detached, almost ironic, but possessed of a deeply buried rage. Tuchman is actually detached and ironic (apart from about Sir John French). Pope is patriotic, glib, 'keen', jolly. 

‘Rugh Rhymes has a combination of emotions and experience that was missing from every other book in this list. Even 'Onward Toward Our Noble Deaths' has little of hatred for the enemy, they barely play much part directly and are rarely depicted. 


"Whats the Good?" [first two verses]

 "Well, I've done my bit o' scrappin',

And I've done quite a lot;

Nicked 'em neatly with my bayonet,

So I needn't waste a shot.

'Twas my duty, and I done it,

But I 'opes the doctor's quick,

For I wish I 'adn't done it,

Gawd! it turns me shamed and sick.


There's a young 'un like our Richard,

And I bashed 'is 'ead in two,

And there's that ole grey 'aired geezer

Which I stuck 'is belly though.

Gawd, you women, wives and mothers,

It's sich waste of all your pain,

If you knowed what I'd been doin'

Could yer kiss me still, my Jane?”


Studdert-Kennedys post-war journey is quite a ride.  He went into the war delivering stirring sermons about the virtues of the bayonet and came out a Christian Socialist. He wrote a book called "Lies!", was 100 per cent behind Bismark being essentially the antichrist was denied burial in a Cathedral for being too much of a leftie. 

From his Wikipedia; 

“"After the war, Studdert Kennedy was given charge of St Edmund, King and Martyr in Lombard Street, London. Having been converted to Christian socialism and pacifism during the war, he wrote Lies (1919), Democracy and the Dog-Collar (1921) (featuring such chapters as "The Church Is Not a Movement but a Mob", "Capitalism is Nothing But Greed, Grab, and Profit-Mongering" and "So-Called Religious Education Worse than Useless"), Food for the Fed Up (1921), The Wicket Gate (1923), and The Word and the Work (1925). He moved to work for the Industrial Christian Fellowship, for whom he went on speaking tours of Britain." 

He was also capable of some rather spicy gothic verse;


“Truth [lines 34 to 45]

The shadows have departed,

And black night

Lies brooding over all the earth,

And hideous things find birth.

The world brings forth abortions,

And then weeps with bloody tears,

Because her womb is shamed,

Her children maimed,

And all her home become a wilderness of sin.

The sun is darkened,

And the moon turned into blood

And down upon us sweeps a flood

Of Lust and Cruelty.”


These are not really an accurate representation of the full tone and weight of the poems but are some of the darker fragments which I personally like and which I think will grab your attention and will also make vivid the contrast between Willie and Pope. The full range of the verse is more religious, with much more seeking and finding of divine grace, and I thought if I put that stuff in right away my audience would find it a bit twee. 



“Thy Will Be Done [last verse]

And Bill, 'e were doin' 'is duty boys,

What e came on the earth to do,

And the answer what came to the prayers I prayed

Was 'is power to see it through.

To see it through to the very end,

And to die as my old pal died,

Wi' a thought for 'is pal and prayer for 'is gal,

And 'is brave 'eart satisfied."


Fundamentally ‘Rough Rhymes’ is a religious text about the search for meaning in a crushing and annihilating place, with the central praxis or dichotomy being between deeply held faith and the martial virtues, and hatreds, of a soldier and a patriot. The two don’t mix but that hasn’t stopped Europeans, and Abrahamics generally, for a couple thousand years. And you get a lot of interesting thinking and reflection out of it. 

For me G. A. Studdert-Kennedy is the most human of these writers, or the one who seems to exhibit the greatest humanity or the greatest and deepest range of feeling and questions. Tuchman comes close but the sheen of her irony, which aids her in gliding over great spans of history and synthesising its details into a coherent and engaging story, also keeps her a windowglass' depth from the image. 

Willie is also the person who seems most like a full or real soldier, someone ready to stab crush and shoot his fellow man, sometimes feeling bad about it after. Sentimental, patriotic, though not as thoughtless or stupid as Pope who is just those things resigned, sometimes despairing, resolute, breaking down, wrathful at the war and at the enemy.  Mizuki has this too but his war was so much darker and there are deep elisions in his telling. I don’t know if anyone could grapple with the whole thing head-on. 


“Her Gift [lines 12 to 47] 

"We’ve seen men die,

Not once, nor twice, but many times

In agony

A ghastly to behold as that.

We’ve seen men fall,

And rise, and staggering onward fall again,

Bedrenched in their own blood,

Fast flowing like a flood,

Of crimson sacrifice upon the snow.

We’ve seen and would forget.

Why then should there be set

Before our eyes these monuments of crime?

It’s time, high time,

That they were buried in the past;

There let them lie,

In that great sea of merciful oblivion,

               Where our vile deeds,

               And outworn creeds,

               Are left to rot and die.

               We would forget,

               And yet,

Do you remember Rob McNeil

               And how he died,

               And cried,

And pleaded with his men

               To take that gun,

               And kill the Hun

               That worked it dead?

               He bled

Horribly. Do you remember?

I can’t forget,

I would not if I could,

It were not right I should,

               He died for me.

He was a God that boy,

The only God I could adore.”