Tuesday, 10 December 2013

'Scared to Death' - one of 23 short stories from an anthology to mark the Great War published by Mardibooks

Captain Alexander peered through his field glasses. Despite the bullets whistling past at ground level and the dull, earth-shattering thuds that shook the ground and spewed forth huge splays of clay and dust, the men were prepared to obey their orders like sheep.  The noise was deafening and incessant, and was enough to drive anyone unaccustomed to the world of mechanised warfare, insane. But most of the men were wholly accustomed to it by now; It had become part of everyday life for them.

Private Thomas Highgate, on the other hand, was hardly a man in the strict sense of the word. He was no more than seventeen years of age when he had signed up for the Royal West Kent Regiment. His mother would always refer to him as ‘the boy.’ “It’s alright, you leave those right there, the boy will see to it first thing,” she’d say; or “Never you mind about fetching coal, Sam, the boy will do it right enough.” He was used to a tough life back in Blighty. Farm labouring in Shoreham wasn’t exactly a picnic, and his father wasn’t the easiest of employers. So it hadn’t seemed like a big deal to sign those official papers; and besides, all his mates were up for it. It was going to be an easy war – a walk-over. Everybody knew that. So here he was, among the slimy, putrid, rat-infested trenches where death hung in the air like a bad smell – which, of course, it was. It wasn’t what he had expected. It wasn’t what anyone had expected. But it was too late to go back now. Too late to have second thoughts. Too late to let your nerves get the better of you.

It was just as well he had Jimmy by his side. Jimmy was a tough but sensitive soul, and looked out for him like the caring and compassionate father Thomas never had. The older man must have been in his early forties, was large framed with soft grey eyes and spoke with a deep, resonant, reassuring voice. He would always make sure the lad was close to hand, and out of harm’s way; not that anyone could rationally predict where that might be at any given moment. “You stick with me son, and you’ll be alright. Do you hear me?” Jimmy would say, and Thomas would follow like a shadow. As a carpenter by trade, this gentle giant with grey eyes had a young wife and child back home in the pretty village of Aylesford. Thomas knew it well. He’d enjoyed many a pint in its tiny pub on the high street that could trace its origins back to Henry VIII. In their quiet moments, Jimmy would always share his ration of cigarettes with the lad and show him photographs of the ‘two girls in his life.’ Here they’d chat like father and son. Thomas would talk of his work on the farm, the girl he intended to get engaged to after the war, and his dream of buying a Morris Oxford when he had his own farm, and employed his own labourers. In return, Jimmy would recount tales of courting, the pleasures of parenthood and colourful accounts of his sporting prowess on the village cricket green. He was clearly a very skilful leg spin bowler and had in one memorable game taken six wickets for the cost of just two runs.

The sound of captain Alexander’s whistle pierced the air like a sharp steel blade through butter, and Thomas felt Jimmy’s large leathery, callous-ridden hand grab his and pull him firmly but carefully up the firing steps into enemy fire. “Alright lad, he we go. God bless, eh.” It was a strangely compassionate and fatherly gesture in the circumstances.

As he emerged from his subterranean home, he glimpsed a couple of men to his right; their lifeless bodies collapsing like large sacks of potatoes back into the trench. As they did so, the roar of war seemed to intensify and Thomas unconsciously wet himself. He was petrified. “Keep looking forward lads. Never look back.” Captain Alexander’s words sounded more like a stern warning than helpful advice. The truth of the matter was that visibility wherever you looked above ground was unbelievably poor as all around them explosions would tear the landscape apart in violent, nerve shattering bursts, while smoke and debris filled the air with a kind of thick, acrid smog.  The ground here was no firmer than it had been back in the trenches as his boots squelched and slid on the mud. Thomas continued slowly, instinctively crouching as if this would in some way help him dodge enemy bullets and artillery shells. While carefully following Jimmy over a barbed wire fence, the ground just behind them erupted and the force of the blast threw him into the air and dumped him unceremoniously into a freshly made crater.
It was some while before he could open his eyes. The explosion had been so close and intense that it felt as if his eardrums had quite literally exploded, and as a result he could barely hear the sound of gunfire and the explosions of shells around him, though he could feel their violent tremor well enough. Thankfully, he was, for the moment, totally oblivious to the heart-rending cries of those poor wretched souls in close proximity who were dying where they’d fallen.

Thomas eased himself forward and as he did so, noticed a significant amount of fresh blood on his tunic. He tentatively unbuttoned two brass buttons and slid his hand gently beneath the fabric to feel his chest beneath the vest. There was no discernible wound or pain. The blood clearly and thankfully wasn’t his. Then he noticed that his boot was lying upturned no more than a couple of yards from his right hand. Instinctively, he stretched to pull it out of the thick, grey mud, only to discover that it wasn’t his; it was caked in dark congealed blood and still had its owner’s decapitated foot inside. Thomas retched and vomited. He didn’t want to be here. He wasn’t made for this kind of thing. He wanted to be back on the farm. And then he remembered his friend. Where was Jimmy? If he could find his mate, he’d be alright. He was tired from nervous exhaustion, and the blast that had obviously come so close to killing him had had a profound effect on his nerves, which hadn’t been in a very good state to begin with. In an attempt to calm himself, he closed his eyes and took deep breaths, holding each for 10 seconds and then expelling air slowly. While doing this he’d imagine himself in a pleasant and relaxing setting. It was a technique he’d use to cope with stress and would invariably induce a semi-trance-like state if only for a few minutes.

The war seemed miles away now as he stepped out of the pavilion and admired the view before him. It was the perfect village green, the midday sun threw long shadows across the neatly clipped outfield, and you could hear the birds singing in the distant hedgerows. The eleven men in white flannels assumed their fielding positions as Jimmy furiously rubbed the leather ball on his flannels so that one half of the blood red leather orb shone like glass. He turned and languidly strode towards the crease and in an elegant furry of arms and legs delivered the perfect ball. It pitched in line with middle stump and as the batsman strode down the wicket to drive it off his front foot, it turned sharply, sailed past the bat and clipped the off stump, knocking the bail to the ground. Jimmy smiled and there was much shaking of hands. He winked at Thomas. “Now that, young man, is how you bowl an off-spinner.”

Light rain quite literally stopped play as droplets rolled down Thomas’s filthy face causing muddy rivulets to stream down his army collar. The sound of war had returned to his ears, and he opened his eyes. The light seemed to be fading now as he gently eased himself out of the crater. His slightly rusty rifle, for which he had already been reprimanded, was nowhere to be seen, but he wasn’t particularly bothered by that. All he wanted to do was locate Jimmy. He hoped in God’s name that his older friend hadn’t been killed. From now on he wasn’t going to stand. He’d have a far better chance of staying alive if he crawled on all fours.

As it turned out, Jimmy hadn’t been very far away… 50 possibly 80 yards, no more. He lay on his back, eyes wide open staring into the heavens. He looked at peace with the world, and his right hand was clenched tightly around something that Thomas couldn’t make out. Gently the boy prised open his friend’s fingers and retrieved a photograph. It was the photograph of Jimmy with his wife and their little girl with ribbons in her hair. They were standing on a promenade looking out to sea. It could have been anywhere. Brighton, Lyme Regis, Penzance. Now he’d never know. He’d never be able to ask his friend, and the realisation brought tears to the boy’s eyes, one of which fell from his eyelash and landed on the black and white image. The boy tenderly wiped the photograph with his filthy sleeve and placed it back in the dead man’s hand. “Here you go Jimmy. I’m sorry mate. You were a good friend and I shall miss you more than you can imagine. I will never forget you mate. I promise.” And with these words, the boy gently closed his friend’s eyelids because it just felt like the right thing to do.

Without Jimmy, Thomas didn’t know which way to turn, so he just kept on crawling through the mud. And the further he ventured, the more corpses he encountered. Captain Alexander had half his skull missing and still had his field glasses dangling around his neck. Robin Paltrow was dangling ungainly from a barbed wire fence with one arm missing; Colin Rigby lay with a large gash in his chest. Other familiar faces greeted him with blank or painful stares: Jonathan Nelson, big Billy Butcher, Alan Townsend and countless others whose names now eluded him. As far as Thomas could tell, most of his regiment had been wiped out, and he had no intention of joining them. He would keep crawling away from the battle zone, away from the deafening clamour of war, and away from the stench of death.

He kept crawling until nightfall, and the further he crawled and the less muddy the terrain became, the safer he began to feel. It must have been around 2 or 3 in the morning when he finally felt blades of grass between his fingers. The din of battle had calmed and was certainly more distant now, so under the cover of a black velvety sky and luminous half crescent moon he continued on foot.

He hadn’t spotted the barn in the darkness but had by chance stumbled upon it quite literally. It was a godsend. His feet were in agony from blisters and the slow onset of gangrene. Inside were bales of hay and sacks of animal feed, the smell of which were familiar to him and reminded him of home. As his eyes slowly became accustomed to the darkness he discovered a set of clean work clothes draped over a roughly hewn wooden bannister. He couldn’t believe his luck as he tore his filthy army uniform off and pulled on the soft cotton civilian clothes. They were slightly too large for him, so he simply rolled up the trouser ends and shirt sleeves and used his army belt to tighten the trousers at the waist. Then he found a cosy corner, buried himself in a pile of hay and fell asleep.


John Burton, the gamekeeper had worked on Lord Rothschild’s land in the village of Tournan for no more than 18 months and had got the job on account of his 15 years in the army in which he’d seen active service during the Boer War. He was a nondescript ghost of a man with sullen features and a high forehead. A man of few words, he had never married or formed a meaningful relationship with anyone in his 54 years. He’d only gone into the barn to hang a brace of pheasants, and on entering noticed the various items of the British army uniform lying scattered on the floor. Thomas’s gentle snoozing gave the lad away.

Burton put the pheasants down and stood over the boy. “Good morning young man.”
Thomas opened his eyes and registered the silhouette of the figure above him. “I see you’ve helped yourself to my work clothes. Army too much for you, was it?”

Thomas rubbed his eyes. “I’ve had enough of it… I can’t take any more of it. I want to get out of the army, and this is how I am going to do it.” He tugged at his shirt. “I hope you don’t mind.” As soon as he’d uttered these words, Thomas began to regret what he’d just said. He didn’t know who this Englishman was. And he could almost hear Jimmy’s voice berating him. “Easy lad,” he’d have cautioned. “Play your cards close to your chest boy.” But it was too late now. What had been said couldn’t be unsaid.

The man remained quiet for a little while before speaking. And when he did, he chose not to refer to the work clothes. “I expect you’ll be a bit hungry then,” he said.

“Could say that,” Thomas nodded. “Actually I’m starving hungry.”

Burton mumbled something unintelligible to himself and turned to retrieve his pheasants in order to hang them from a hook, which had clearly been screwed into the timber frame for this very purpose. “In that case,” he said with his back to the boy, “I’ll arrange to have some food sent over. Might be able to rustle up some ham and cheese and a bit of bread if you’re lucky. What’s your name lad?”

“Thomas. Thomas Highgate, sir. And thank you very much sir. I’d really appreciate that.”

“That’s alright Thomas. You wait right there. I won’t be too long.” And with that, the man was gone. The thought of food hadn’t crossed Thomas’s mind until now, but now that it had, he couldn’t think of anything else. He’d wait here for the man to come back.

The wait was rather longer than he’d have liked. But when the door of the barn did finally open, the boy’s eyes weren’t greeted by the sight of John Burton but instead, two men in military uniform. One stooped to inspect the uniform on the floor. “Royal West Kent Regiment, eh? Very fine regiment.” The other man who looked the more senior of the two stood in the doorway. Now it was his turn to speak. “Very fine regiment indeed, Lieutenant Martins. Not the kind of regiment to put up with the likes of cowards and deserters.”

The two stepped forward. Thomas could see their features now. The younger of the two was clean-shaven and the older man sported an impressive moustache. Now the older man spoke again: “It’s usual custom for privates to stand to attention in the company of senior ranks, Private Highgate.”

Thomas felt sick. He got to his feet and saluted. The younger man, this Lieutenant Martins character who appeared to be no older than 25, stood right in front of Thomas and looked straight into the boy’s eyes. Then he did something Thomas wasn’t expecting. He slapped him hard across the face, and Thomas fell backwards. Before he could pick himself up he felt cold metal handcuffs being clicked around both his wrists. And before he knew it he was being frogmarched into daylight and thrown into the back of a brand new Vauxhall D-type. In normal circumstances, a ride in a motorcar would have been something to get excited about. But this was one journey Thomas wished he didn’t have to endure. The older man drove while the younger one talked incessantly about Cambridge and something called a ‘May Ball.’ The car bumped along country roads for a few miles before reaching a small town. They turned into a side street and through an innocuous archway and then through a courtyard with two sentries standing guard at the entrance to what looked like a municipal building or town hall.

Thomas was bundled out of the car and led inside the building. A young man opened the door and saluted. “Fitzy, be a good man would you and take Private Highgate here down to the cell.” Thomas was led down a spiral of stone steps into the dank bowels of the building. The young soldier looked sympathetically at him. “The name’s Fitzgerald, but you can call me Fitz. Would you like a cigarette?” Thomas nodded. The soldier unlocked the handcuffs and handed Thomas a cigarette and lit it with a match. “You’ll have to wait in here I’m afraid.” The young man opened a large, heavy metal door and revealed a bare room. Thomas stepped inside and the door was closed behind him with a heavy metallic clunk, followed by the turning of a key.

Thomas sat on the stone floor and took a deep drag on the cigarette. He’d been a complete fool. He should have scarpered from that barn as soon as that deceitful bastard had hung up those stupid birds and gone and informed the authorities. God knows what was going to happen to him now.

An hour later, Thomas heard footsteps outside and the door key was turned in the lock. The young soldier appeared at the door with a metal tray. “It’s not exactly meat and two veg but it’s the best I could do in the circumstances.”  He handed Thomas the tray on which stood a glass of water, a hunk of bread smeared with chicken fat and an apple that looked as if it had seen better days. Thomas accepted it with gratitude and the young man closed the door.

Thomas hadn’t eaten anything for two days and devoured the meagre meal in no time. No sooner than he had, the young soldier appeared at the door again. “Colonel Mayhew has summoned you to the courtroom. I’ll take you there now, but I’m afraid you’ll have to wear these.” He produced the handcuffs and put them around the boy’s slender wrists and led him back up the winding steps and along a long corridor.

The courtroom looked more like an old classroom. In front of him was a trestle table behind which sat three men. Thomas assumed that Colonel Mayhew was the man with white hair in the middle. To his right sat the man with the moustache, and to his left, a bald man with spectacles. The young soldier seated Thomas in an upright chair before the three men, saluted earnestly and left the room, closing the door behind him.

Mayhew looked at Thomas disparagingly. “Private Thomas Highgate,” he began, “you have been brought to this military court because it is our belief and contention that on 5th September you wilfully deserted your company – the Royal West Kent Regiment who were positioned a mile south of the River Marne. And we have it on good authority that when discovered by Mr John Burton in a barn just outside the village of Tournan, and questioned by Mr Burton as to your motive for stealing his work clothes, you responded with the following words: ‘I have had enough of the army and this is my way of getting out of it.’ You are therefore being tried for dereliction of duty, desertion and cowardice. I needn’t remind you, Private Highgate, of the seriousness of these charges. What, if anything, do you have to say in your defence?”

Thomas hadn’t prepared for this. He was confused and tongue-tied. “It’s true,” he stuttered. “I did say those things to Mr Burton… But I wasn’t thinking straight… My best friend had been killed, and I came close to being blown to kingdom come… The noise… The deafening noise… It was unbearable… You have no idea… I just couldn’t carry on…”

The room fell silent. Mayhew chose to break it. “I think you’ll find that we do have a fairly good idea about the nature of this conflict, Private Highgate.” He paused while the two beside him nodded in agreement. “And is it because you were not feeling yourself that you chose to steal the work clothes in which you consciously and wilfully chose to desert your company, your mates, your King and your country?”

Thomas’s eyes began to glaze with tears. This wasn’t fair. Why did he have to suffer this unpleasant barrage of accusations? All he knew was that he had been too petrified to carry on. The tears streamed down both his cheeks and he looked at his feet in embarrassment.

“Well, Private Highgate? Are we to have an answer for the record? Or do we assume blithely that there simply isn’t one?”

Thomas looked at the three figures through watery eyes. “I don’t know sir.”

Mayhew turned to his colleagues either side of him. “Any further questions?” Both men shook their heads. “Very well. This court is adjourned.” Mayhew made a hand gesture towards the door and Private Fitzgerald appeared. “Would you care to take the accused down to the cell now Fitzgerald while we deliberate?”

Precisely what took place next in that so-called courtroom is a matter of conjecture. Whether the three discussed the merits of the case and took into account the defence (what little there was of it) and the tender age of the accused, we shall never know. What we do know, however, is that Colonel Mayhew’s deliberations took no more than 10 minutes.

Thomas was led back up the steps by Fitzgerald and had barely taken his seat before Mayhew asked him to stand.

“Private Thomas Highgate, this court finds you guilty of dereliction of duty, cowardice and wilful desertion of your regiment. This is a most serious crime against the Crown for which this court can only pass one sentence. I therefore sentence you to death. Do you have anything to say?”

Thomas stood motionless. He couldn’t comprehend the enormity of Colonel Mayhew’s words. His thoughts turned to the girl he intended to get engaged to back in Blighty after the war. Her name was Sarah and he could see her long auburn hair and could almost smell that cheap perfume she dabbed behind her ears. Then he saw his old friend beaming out from the black and white scene by the seaside. The tears began to flow freely now. But he didn’t care. Nothing mattered anymore. As far as he was concerned, there wasn’t going to be an ‘anymore.’

Mayhew nodded to Fitzgerald who took Thomas by the elbow and led him back to the cell.

There were two chairs placed in the middle of the bare room, one of which was occupied by an elderly chaplain with a ruddy complexion and a receding hairline. “May the Lord bless you and keep you, my child. May he look down upon you with great loving kindness and resolve you of your sins. Amen.”

Thomas looked at the old man in his dog collar and crucifix with incredulity. “They can’t just shoot me. I’m not yet 20… they need me back on the farm… and I’m getting engaged to my girl after the war… and anyway, I’m not a coward.”

The chaplain took the boy’s hand. “It’s not my place to pass judgement, my child. I can only offer solace in the form of the Almighty in whose infinite wisdom, mercy and universal loving kindness we must all take comfort.”

Thomas took his hand away. “But I was never one for church and all that.”

The chaplain smiled. “It’s never too late, my child to see the light and embrace the Lord… Shall we recite Psalm 23 together? It might help.” He opened his leather Bible and began to read by himself while the boy sobbed. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”

The chaplain’s voice broke off as the heavy metal door opened. It was the bald man with spectacles who had presided over the hearing. “It’s time,” he whispered to the chaplain who closed his Bible and rose. Thomas was led out by the bald man and his puny wrists were handcuffed once again. They walked back up the stone steps for the last time, then along a long passageway that eventually led out to a small courtyard at the back of the building. Thomas was led by the man to the far end of the courtyard where a wooden stake had been recently hammered into the ground. At this point, a number of uniformed men forcibly tied Thomas to the stake. Try as he might, the lad couldn’t resist; he simply didn’t have the strength. Once he had been secured tightly to the post, one of the men placed a sackcloth bag over the boy’s head and pinned a white square of fabric to the centre of his chest.

Six young soldiers were then led to their firing positions and issued with rifles; one of which would be unloaded. This was the one solitary concession to human compassion, ensuring that not one of the executioners would ever know for certain if they’d been responsible for the fatal bullet.

The bald man stood to the side and wiped his spectacles with a handkerchief.  He replaced them on his snub little nose and inspected the firing squad. “Alright men. Present arms.” All six aimed their rifles at the pathetic figure tethered tightly to the post.

Thomas was breathing very deeply. He was in a rowing boat and Sarah was sitting beside him in her Sunday best. The sunlight was glinting off the ripples and little ducks bobbed as they made steady progress upstream.

“Take aim.”

He was precariously trying to uncork a bottle of bubbly and his girl was giggling like there was no tomorrow. “Careful Tom, you’re going to rock the boat!”



Postscript: Thomas Highgate was the first of 306 members of the British armed forces to be executed during the Great War for cowardice, dereliction of duty or desertion. He was just 19 years of age. In November 2006, the UK government pardoned all 306, but to this day Thomas Highgate’s name remains conspicuously absent from Shoreham’s war memorial.

'Scared to Death' by Alex Pearl - one of 23 short stories published by Mardibooks in an anthology to mark the centenary of the First World War, and in remembrance of all those who have fallen in conflict.
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Monday, 18 November 2013

Wanted: accountant with feather duster skills

I've had my fair share of strange job interviews over the years. Perhaps the most surreal was when I applied for a summer job while still at school at the passport office in Petty France, London. The job, which was no more than a dog's body position that required me to spend endless days tracking down passport applications, came under the auspices of the Home Office. So I was required to go through a bizarrely official interview somewhere in Whitehall. It was, in short, the most daunting and nerve-wracking interview I've ever had to sit through. The interviewer, a stern woman in her late fifties with horn rimmed glasses over which she peered accusationally would have made a perfect MI5 interrogator. To make one feel even more uneasy, her office was a vast and gloomy affair and her desk enjoyed the proportions of an ample boardroom table. Once my interrogation was over, this Rottweiler of a woman informed me that in the event of taking up the position, I would be expected to handle highly sensitive, confidential material for which I would be required by law to sign the Official Secrets Act. That's right, we're talking poxy passport applications. I'm not entirely sure how the information I might have gleaned from the 'distinguishing marks' section of an application form could be classed as 'highly sensitive' and pose a threat to national security, but there we are.

In a rather different vein, a cousin of mine once recalled a strange interview he had at Cambridge university many years ago. The elderly Don enquired politely what my cousin's father did for a living, and my cousin responded that his father was a rabbi. "Ah splendid," retorted the older man, "he's in rubber." My cousin chose not to say another word.

But far more surreal than either of these two examples was an interview a very good friend of mine recounted to me last week. This friend is an accountant and had gone for an interview for a job in an area closer to where he lives. Everything went perfectly well. My friend answered all the questions perfectly, and then from nowhere came this: "Now Mr Smithers, what are your cleaning skills like?" My friend looked a bit blank. He was under the impression that the position was for a company accountant who could keep the company's books looking clean and tidy - not the company's carpets and skirting boards.

"Let me explain," continued his interviewer. "We have a rota here. Once a week we all muck in and clean the office." My friend, being an honest individual, admitted that his accountancy skills were far more impressive than his ability to don Marigold gloves and wield a feather duster. His interviewer looked somewhat disappointed; and my friend hasn't heard anything back since.

I know we live in an age where multi-tasking is expected of all of us; but this has to be completely and utterly bonkers.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Friday, 15 November 2013

How a criminal act helped create Apple

In September 1971, a brilliant and socially inept electrical engineer was perusing an article his mother had saved for him in Esquire magazine. The geek in question was a young student named Steve Wozniak, and the article revealed that hackers had now worked out how to make long-distance calls for free by replicating tones that routed signals on the AT&T network. It further revealed that the sound emitted by a toy whistle found in a cereal packet would perfectly replicate the same 2600 Hertz tone used by the phone network's call-routing switches and could fool the system into allowing long-distance calls to go through without extra charges. The article went on to declare that other tones that served to route calls could be found in an issue of the Bell System Technical Journal, and as a direct result, AT&T began a campaign to get the journal removed from library shelves.

In an excited state Wozniak got on the phone and called his best mate and fellow electronics geek, Steve Jobs, and together they set off to find a library that still had the journal on its shelves. They got lucky and immediately set about producing a device that utilised a frequency counter to calibrate the desired tones. Unfortunately for them, their first attempt didn't quite work and was unable to fool the phone company. Undeterred, Wozniak agreed to continue on the project by developing a digital version of the device by using diodes and transistors.

Once it had been completed, the two attempted to call Wozniak's uncle in Los Angeles, but by mistake got a wrong number. It didn't matter - it worked perfectly.

As a result, the two came to realise that the device, which they dubbed a Blue Box could be built in huge numbers and sold. The units would cost them $40 to manufacture, so Jobs decided to price them at $150. They demonstrated them at college and swiftly sold around 100 units. But their endeavour came to a swift end when trying to sell it at a pizza parlour, they were quite literally mugged at gunpoint.

Steve Jobs was to later recount the episode as being the spark that launched Apple. The two friends had an affinity when it came to solving technical problems and together formed an invincible and incredibly focused team. When quizzed on the subject by Walter Isaacson, Jobs later confessed: "If it hadn't been for the Blue Boxes there wouldn't have been an Apple."

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Sunday, 27 October 2013

How a handbag shop won Spielberg his first Oscars

In October 1980, the Australian novelist, Thomas Keneally found himself in Beverly Hills having just returned from a film festival in Sorrento in Italy. He had been invited by his American publisher to embark on a book tour in the States, but having stepped off the plane, his priority was to replace his briefcase which had been stuffed to the gills with Italian souvenirs and had now given up the ghost.

Not wanting to spend a small fortune on Rodeo Drive, he found a more modest looking street with ordinary looking shops, and here discovered the Handbag Studio. Its charismatic owner was stocky and appeared to be of Slavic stock and stood in the doorway eyeing up this prospective customer clutching his broken briefcase.

"So it's 105 degrees out here and you don't want to come into my air-conditioned store. Do you think I'll eat you?"

The proprietor was known locally as Leopold Page and was impeccably turned out. Keneally explained that he needed a new briefcase, and followed the owner into the shop.

The two engaged in a conversation. Leopold wanted to know how the case had become broken and what had brought this Australian to Beverly Hills. And in return, Keneally learnt that the proprietor's real name was Leopold Psefferberg, or simply Poldek for short. And once Keneally had revealed that he was an author, the other man became even more animated, introducing Keneally to his shop assistant, his son and finally his wife, Mischa who he clearly adored.
Having found a suitable briefcase and arranged for a $10 discount, Poldek took the author aside.
"Here's what I wanted to point out ... I know a wonderful story. A story of humanity man to man. I tell all the writers I get through here... But it's a story for you, Thomas. It's a story for you, I swear."

These are words that most writers would probably dread. Keneally may well have had visions of listening to the story, nodding politely, feigning interest and disingenuously promising to use it in some way by weaving it seamlessly into his next book.

But the more this engaging shopkeeper spoke, the more the professional storyteller became entranced.

The story was, of course, a gift for anyone in search of the perfect narrative. 
Poldek and his wife were Jews and had been saved during the war by a Nazi by the name of Oskar Schindler - a womanising, drinking and gambling member of the Nazi party who demanded to fill his munitions factory in Krakow with Jews who he then looked after and protected like a guardian angel - knowing full well that their fate would otherwise be certain death. 

Keneally had stumbled by chance on the entire storyline for his next novel, the details of which were meticulously filed in the form of countless press cuttings and photographs that Poldek produced from several filing cabinets. There were heartfelt speeches from Jewish survivors who owed their lives to Schindler; there was a lengthy piece on Schindler written by the Los Angeles Examiner; there were countless carbon copies of letters in German; and there was a notice of Schindler's death in 1974 and the reburial of his body a month later by the Israeli government on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem where a tree was planted in his honour in the Avenue of the Righteous.

All this documentary evidence Poldek collated and then together with Keneally carried across the road to the local bank where, having exchanged words with one of the employees, the entire pile was copied on the bank's photocopier. 

Keneally came away from the handbag shop with his head reeling. In his hand he carried his new briefcase stuffed full with the photocopies from the bank. There was so much material here, and all of it was totally engrossing. Among the numerous speeches was one by Schindler's Jewish accountant, a man named Itzhak Stern whose detailed account of Schindler's single-minded crusade to pluck Jews from the shadow of death, was made from Tel Aviv in 1963. Among countless other testimonies, there were documents and plans relating to Plaszow concentration camp on the northern edge of Krakow; a camp run by an SS sadist by the name of Amon Goeth from whom Schindler secured his labour for his first factory in Krakow.

Then there came the typewritten list of names of workers who were to be transported to Schindler's second factory, Brinnliz in Moravia. The list was hundreds of names long, and among them were the names of Leopold and Mischa Pfefferberg. Mischa was marked down as a metalworker and Lepold, a welder - despite the fact that he had never attempted to use a welding iron in his life. This list would become the focal point of the novel and eventually work itself into the title of both the book and the film to follow.

Also among the material was a faded typewritten translation of a remarkable speech given by Oskar Schindler on the last day of war in which he addressed both his labourers and the SS guards who had been ordered to exterminate the camp. While informing his former labourers that they were about to inherit a shattered world, he implored the guards to depart in honour without blood on their hands. It was a huge gamble, and the atmosphere must have been unbelievably tense. But the gambit, as was so often the case with Herr Schindler, paid off and the guards fled.

Interestingly, Keneally wasn't the only person to discover the story. In the early 1960s, while Oskar Schindler was still alive, the wife of the film producer Marvin Gosch had brought her handbag to the shop to be repaired. Once Poldek had established the identity of his customer, his powers of persuasion were put to good use and within weeks an appointment had been set up for him to see Marvin Gosch at the MGM Studios.

Hearing Poldek's story filled Gosch with such enthusiasm that he got together a team including Howard Koch who had worked on the screenplay for 'Casablanca', and together they began interviewing Schindler survivors. And then over the winter of 1962-63 Gosch, Kock, Poldek and Schindler met along with other Schindler survivors in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. And following this meeting, MGM bought the rights to Schindler's story for $50,000. It was perfect timing for Oskar Schindler since his small cement business had only recently gone into liquidation and he was living on hand-outs from his survivors. According to Poldek, he'd insisted on paying $20,000 of this figure to Oskar's wife, Emilie Schindler. And the remaining $30,000 he took to Oskar.

As with so many film projects in Hollywood, the film never saw the light of day, and the story remained unknown to the wider world.

But while Keneally sat in his hotel room meticulously going through the precious contents of his new briefcase, he was called by Poldek and invited to dinner with himself, Mischa and Schindler's former lawyer, Irving Glovin. Keneally accepted, but initially felt that he wasn't the obvious choice of author for the book. After all, he wasn't Jewish, and didn't feel qualified to tell the story. But the more he talked to his hosts, the more he came to realise that the Holocaust told through the lens of Oskar Schindler would bring the whole unimaginable scale of the Holocaust down to an intimately human and tangible level. In Keneally's own words: "I had stumbled upon it. I had not grasped it. It - and Poldek had grasped me."

In 1982, Keneally's book, 'Schindler's Ark' was published to widespread acclaim, and in the same year went on to win Keneally the Man Booker Prize. And following its success, Poldek set himself his next mission in life: to persuade Stephen Spielberg to shoot the film. According to Poldek, he called Spielberg every week for eleven years. In truth, Spielberg needed little persuasion. He was so moved by the book that Universal Pictures bought the rights to the film, which Spielberg tentatively agreed to shoot on location in Poland in 1993. And Poldek became an advisor on the film, showing Spielberg the sites in Poland.

Spielberg saw the project as his contribution to his family and refused any payment, viewing it as "blood money."  In March 1993 shooting began. Spielberg was insistent that the film had to look real and for this reason chose to shoot in the style of a black and white documentary, disposing with dollies and cranes and opting instead for handheld cameras.

As Spielberg later confided, the experience for him was highly emotional. "I was hit in the face with my personal life. My upbringing. My Jewishness. The stories my grandparents told me about the Shoah. And Jewish life came pouring back into my heart. I cried all the time."

The film went on to win seven Oscars including 'Best Film' and 'Best Director', along with a host of other accolades. Touchingly, Spielberg invited Poldek and his wife to accompany him to the Academy Awards night, and on accepting the awards, made a special mention of "a survivor named Poldek Pfefferberg... I owe him such a debt. He has carried the story of Oskar Schindler to all of us."

At the box office 'Schindler's List' proved far bigger than anyone could have imagined, grossing an astonishing $321.2 million worldwide. And when it received its television premier in the United States on NBC in 1997, it received no fewer than 65 million viewers.

Poldek went on to set up the Oskar Schindler Humanities Foundation, an organisation that recognises humanitarian acts by individuals, regardless of race or nationality, and when asked about his objectives, responded with the following words: "Only when the foundation is a reality will I say I have fulfilled my obligation. Because when I am no longer here, when the Schindler Jews are not here, the foundation will still go on."

Poldek died on 9 March 2001 having fulfilled his obligation many times over.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Saturday, 26 October 2013

The unsung hero of the Battle of Britain

As a young lad, I used to have a vast squadron of Airfix models hanging from my bedroom ceiling, but it was always the iconic Spitfire that took pride of place. This elegant machine designed by R. J. Mitchell has acquired almost mythical status as the hero and saviour of this green and pleasant land during this island's hour of need. Yes, it was fast, and yes, Germans genuinely feared it, and yes, it was a great deal sexier than anything back then that took to the skies; and of course it had a wonderful name. It was, in short, the big brand of its day. Whenever journalists wanted to know about advances in aeronautic technology, the Ministry of Defence would always talk up the capabilities of the Spitfire. And it became romanticized by films like 'The First of the Few' directed and starring the charismatic Leslie Howard.

There can be little doubt that the Spitfire did play an important role during the Battle of Britain, but to say that it played the most effective and important role is in fact questionable. You only have to look at the facts and figures to see that the most prolific fighter plane during the Battle of Britain in terms of the number of German planes shot down, was actually the Hawker Hurricane. 55% of enemy planes shot down during those critical and eventful days were attributed to this remarkable workhorse of a plane.

Designed by Sydney Camm, it was characterised by its rugged workmanlike construction and utter dependability. The Hurricane may not have had the looks, but it was the fighter plane of choice for most pilots. Indeed, Douglas Bader insisted on flying one for the entire duration of the Battle of Britain. And many of the great aces chose the Hurricane over the Spitfire, including the Czech Joseph Frantisek of 303 Squadron who in 1940 alone shot down at least 17 enemy planes.

So what was it about this lesser known fighter plane that made it so potent?

For a start, its machine guns enjoyed a far more stable platform than the Spitfire, which made it far more accurate and controllable when firing at your enemy. Generally speaking, pilots didn't like the guns on a Spitfire which sprayed bullets everywhere like a scattergun.

Once the Hurricane's engine was upgraded to a more powerful Merlin III, it became a formidable force. It may not have been capable of attaining the speed of a Spitfire when flying in a straight line, but what it could do most effectively was climb at speed and dive down at the enemy from the direction of the sun where it couldn't be seen. And when it came to manoeuvrability it was every bit as agile as a Spitfire.

There was one other big advantage it had over the Spitfire, and that was its remarkable robustness. Though much of its body was constructed from stretched canvas, it could take a great deal more punishment than a Spitfire before being downed. And if it did require repairing, it was far easier and quicker to repair holes in cloth than replace the metal plates on a Spitfire. So it stayed in the air longer than its counterpart.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Friday, 25 October 2013

Britain's greatest eccentric genius

I have long been a keen viewer of 'Dragons’ Den.' It's a reasonably sound formula for watchable television despite the irritating music, studio set-ups and close-up camera angles. But this said, there isn't a single business idea involving a brilliantly inventive creation that I can readily recall this show ever bringing to light. But then, that isn't entirely surprising. Brilliant inventive ideas in the business world are usually confined to the sphere of technology and involve vast teams of technicians and sizable resources.

Ask anyone on the street to name some brilliant inventions created by individuals in the last century and they'll be hard pressed to come up with more than two or three. I can think of two: the wind-up radio by Trevor Baylis and the utterly brilliant Catseye by Percy Shaw.

The Catseye is one of the best examples I can think of that is beautifully simple and profoundly beneficial. And the story behind the man and his idea are worth recounting here.

One of fourteen children, Percy Shaw was born into an impoverished family in 1890. His father, a dyer’s labourer could barely support his large family on his paltry salary of £1 a week. And at the tender age of 13, Percy left school and took a series of odd jobs culminating in running a blacksmith’s forge with his father. He had always been inventive and from a young age had devised several games, and was by this point turning his hand to inventing various items including rubber backed carpet and an ambitious though unsuccessful attempt to design a petrol pump. By the early 1930s, he’d set up a business to repair roads, paths and pavements, and had invented his own means for doing so: a mechanical roller that utilized an old Ford engine and three lorry wheels. And it was during this period that his inventive brain turned to making roads safer for drivers at night. Shaw had already come close to coming off a sharp bend in a country road when returning from the pub in his car one evening, and was only saved from doing so by the reflective eyes of a cat in the middle of the road.

With the motorcar becoming increasingly popular in the 30s, Shaw knew instinctively that motorists desperately needed some way to see country roads in the dark, and it was the cat’s eyes that had given him the idea of inventing road studs that could work in precisely the same way. He spent the next few years developing his idea in some detail. The studs would have to be bright enough to illuminate the road for motorists at night; able to work effectively in all conceivable weather conditions;  robust enough to withstand heavy traffic going over them; and be completely maintenance free. It was a tough design brief, but Shaw’s eventual design fitted the bill perfectly. He came up with four glass beads embedded within a tough but flexible rubber moulding mounted into a cast iron base. The studs would have to be sunk into the road and fixed in position with asphalt. When vehicles rolled over the rubber studs, they’d simply be pressed into their housings and the glass beads would drop safely and temporarily below the level of the road surface. Ingeniously, Shaw designed a housing that would fill with rain water, so every time a vehicle passed over it the rubber housings would wash dirt and grime from the glass beads in much the same way as the human eyelid regularly washes tears across the surface of the eye.

In 1934, Shaw registered the patent for the Catseye, and the following year he set up a company, Reflecting Roadstuds Ltd with £500 of capital to manufacture his invention. And in 1956 he financed his own experiment, installing fifty catseyes on a particularly dangerous stretch of road just outside Bradford.

As a result, the number of accidents on this stretch of road fell sharply. Impressive though these results were, Shaw was going to have to compete for recognition, because in 1937 the Department of Transport, seeing the need for safer night time driving, launched a national competition to find an effective road reflector.

Shaw’s design eventually won hands down; all other designs either broke during the trial or were deemed ineffective. Nevertheless, his success was short-lived as orders for the road stud simply weren’t forthcoming.

The outbreak of war in 1939 though was to change all that. With government imposed blackouts to thwart German bombers, driving anywhere at night had suddenly become even more perilous, and the Department of Transport’s orders for Shaw’s invention suddenly came flooding in.

After the war the business flourished; Shaw’s factory in Boothbury expanded to occupy over 20 acres with a workforce of 130 and export orders for over a million Catseyes a year. In 1947, Jim Callaghan, then Roads Minister, ordered their introduction nationwide. Eventually there would be 400 on every mile of motorway, and more than 20 million across the country. And in 1965, in recognition of his contribution to road safety, Percy Shaw received an OBE. He was by this stage a multimillionaire.

Despite his vast wealth, Percy Shaw lead a frugal life, refusing to move out of the house he had been brought up in since the age of two. His only luxuries in life were his two Rolls Royces and three television sets which remained perpetually on.

Though a Great British eccentric who never married, he was by no means a lonely man. He enjoyed the company of women and his fellow man, and was often in the habit bringing back friends to his house after the pub had closed to enjoy a few more beers and to watch wrestling on the television.

He died in 1976 at the age of 86 in the same house he had lived virtually his entire life.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Who'd pay £1 million for an unplayable violin?

Why is it that artifacts of enormous historic significance and great works of art that were once thought lost to the nation, always show up in suburban attics? 
This was the case when a rather sad piece of history was auctioned last week for the grand sum of £1.1 million (once the buyer's premium had been added). The item in question being a very tatty looking violin that had certainly seen better days, and was almost certainly unplayable.
Its poor owner, one Wallace Hartley had unfortunately been employed by the British shipping company, White Star Line  to play aboard the maiden voyage of its spanking new passenger liner from Southampton to New York. The year was 1912 and the boat was, of course, the ill-fated Titanic. 
The story of Wallace Hartley's band playing the hymn 'Nearer, My God, To Thee' while the great ship went down has passed into Great British folklore and has come to represent that Great British, unflappable spirit in the face of adversity.
Poor Wallace and the other brave members of his ensemble all drowned along with 1,500 other crew members and passengers.
Quite how the violin survived is something of a mystery. It was believed to have been strapped to his chest in a leather bag, but was not officially accounted for in the inventory of items later recovered. It is more than possible that it was initially stolen or went missing and came to light later that year when Wallace Hartley's fiance, a Miss Maria Robinson sent the following telegram to the Provincial Secretary of Nova Scotia: "I would be most grateful if you could convey my heartfelt thanks to all who have made possible the return of my late fiance's violin."

Touchingly, the violin had in fact been bought by Miss Robinson for her fiance to mark their engagement, and she had gone to the trouble of having it engraved to this effect. What makes this story all the more poignant is the fact that Miss Robinson never did marry, and kept her late fiance's violin in its case until she died in 1939.
It then passed to her sister, Margaret who passed it on to Major Renwick of the Bridlington Salvation Army. Renwick who was fully aware of the instrument's provenance, gave it to one of his members, a violin teacher.
The instrument remained in the Bridlington area until it was finally discovered in the suburban attic seven years ago. A letter with the instrument states: "Major Renwick thought I would be best placed to make use of the violin but I found it virtually unplayable, doubtless due to its eventful life."
It was taken to the government's Forensic Science Service in Chepstow which considered the corrosion deposits "compatible with immersion in sea water." And for the past seven years historians, scientists, forensic experts and Hartley's biographer have all examined it and come to the conclusion that the instrument is authentic "beyond any reasonable doubt." 
The violin was brought to Wallace Hartley's home town of Dewsbury, Yorkshire and auctioned by Andrew Aldridge. Bidding which started at just £50.00 soon became heated and frenetic, and it wasn't long before the price of £350,000 was reached. Thereafter, one could hear a pin drop as the price continued to soar. At £750,000, the battle was between two telephone bidders; the eventual winner being a British collector of Titanic memorabilia.
While it isn't the most expensive violin to be sold at auction (a Stradivarius fetched £8.9 million in 2011), it is undoubtedly the most expensive unplayable violin ever sold, and has set a record price for Titanic memorabilia - the previous record being £220,000 for a 32-foot plan of the Titanic.
Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Hurrah for the Clangers

Those pink knitted, moon dwelling creatures with long snouts - the kind of woollen creations your granny might have knitted when you were a kid - are to grace our television screens after an absence of more than forty years. The BBC has announced that they plan to relaunch 'The Clangers' at a cost of £5 million. But interestingly, in the age of digital technology, the Beeb has stated categorically that the series will be true to the original, which first appeared in 1969. And to this effect, one of its original creators, Peter Firmin, now 84 is to be executive producer, while Daniel Postgate, the son of its original writer, Oliver Postgate, will oversee the scripts. To retain the charm of the original series, stop-frame animation will be employed rather than CGI, and much like their predecessors, these new Clangers will communicate through primitive swanee whistle sound effects. 

It wasn't so long ago that the BBC were investing £15 million in Anne Woods' and speech therapist, Andy Devenport's very peculiar and highly researched 'Teletubbies'. The series was hailed as a huge success (particularly for its creators and the production company 'Ragdoll Productions') having been exported here, there and everywhere. Much was written about Teletubbies at the time; there was a national debate as to whether Tinky Winky was gay; and strangely, the show written originally for two to four-year-olds found a significant audience among university students (who presumably viewed it while smoking marijuana).  

I, for one, am pleased that those adorable whistling pink socks with eyes will be coming back to our television screens. And I don't suppose for one moment that the BBC has any intention of researching the show. 

I wonder if, in forty years from now, someone in the BBC will have the bright idea of reviving Teletubbies? I somehow doubt it, and for the benefit of future generations of kids, I sincerely hope not. 

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Thursday, 11 July 2013

'Why I hope Hitler was right'

The internet is an amazing thing. It allows you to track down pretty much anyone who writes, entertains or blogs, and peruse their latest offerings, innermost thoughts and real life observations to the world at large. This was the case when I recently trawled the net in search of my old English teacher.

Clive Lawton was (and is) no ordinary teacher. For me, he came to represent the John Keating character played by Robin Williams in 'Dead Poets Society' long before the film hit the big screen. To say he was inspirational is something of an understatement. He had this wonderful gift to get his pupils to challenge and question everything, including our fairly dreary GCSE curriculum, and would turn everything on its head in order to make his point. As a result, we would be asked to mark his essays and take part in impromptu class theatre. The point of all this was to instil into his pupils a love of words and an understanding of the power of language.

Since teaching at my old school, he has unsurprisingly achieved much in his professional life. He was headmaster at King David's School, Liverpool, and then went on to jointly found Limmud, the British charity that promotes Jewish learning to anyone in the world who's interested. He is also Governor of the Metropolitan Police Authority and finds time to write and talk all over the world. The other day I inadvertently heard his dulcet tones on the BBC's World Service while in the car.

So it was with some relish that I discovered some of his talks on youtube. One such talk given to a Limmud gathering in Montreal was provocatively titled: 'Why I hope Hitler was right.' And I suspect that only someone of the Jewish faith would be able to get away with such bare-faced audacity, such chutzpah.

Though he now sports white hair, the strident voice, wit and delivery haven't changed one bit. The talk is riveting and in a relatively short space manages to convey the beliefs of the Nazis and the real feelings of Adolf Hitler as expressed in 'Mein Kampf'.

"Many people," says Lawton, "believe that Nazism and Hitler thought the Jews to be the worst kind of people, but they didn't. The Nazi world view was that the world was stratified into top and bottom human beings. This mock science based on something vaguely Darwinian revolved around the survival of the fittest and the natural order of things."

He goes on to describe the concept of the Master Race and how other lower creeds within the system had their uses. Black people who sat at the bottom of the pile, for instance, were very useful. But Jews were different. They didn't fit into the system, because according to Hitler, they weren't even human. They were some kind of virus or cancer that works on the system in order to stop it working. And by disrupting the system and destabilising it, they would ultimately take it over.

At this point Lawton makes the point that ironically, anyone who's close to the Jewish community anywhere in the world will know that Jews are incapable of organising a piss-up in a brewery. He also tells a rather good Jewish Joke along the following lines: Two Jews in Nazi Germany are sitting next to each other reading. One is engrossed in the Yiddish local paper and the other is reading a Nazi propoganda magazine. "Why are you reading that rubbish?" asks the Yiddish newspaper reader. In response his neighbour shrugs: "I'm fed up reading about how miserable, pathetic and hopeless we have all become. I read this and I hear how we're running the factories, the theatres and the newspapers, and I feel a lot better."

"In the Third Reich," continues Lawton, "might is right. The top dogs can do what they like. There is no morality or ethic other than power." Then he says something I hadn't heard before, probably because I haven't read 'Mein Kampf'. He makes the interesting point that Hitler believed conscience to be a Jewish invention. And of course, there could be no room in the Third Reich for such dangerous sentimentality. Jews, gays, gypsies and those of unsound mind or mental capacity had to be disposed of as a matter of course because they didn't fit into the system. But only the Jews were deemed a threat so huge to deserve a 'final solution' of their own. So although others were killed or allowed to die in concentration camps, by and large it was only the Jews who were sent to the death camps and herded into the gas chambers.

As for conscience being a Jewish invention, Lawton looks incredulous. "Wouldn't that be something to be really proud of if that were true? Just imagine a Jewish lad in his bedroom with a poster carrying the headline: 'Conscience is a Jewish invention - Adolf Hitler'".

The silence in the room is almost palpable.

"The only reason I can only say that I hope Hitler was right, is that I'm not convinced that he was. I've seen far too many Jews say racist things about non-Jews; I've heard too much crap said about muslims; experienced too much misogyny; and too much exclusion of the gay community. So it might not be true that Hitler was right. It may be that Hitler believed in the Jews more than the Jews believe in themselves. And that would be a massive tragedy. One only we Jews can resolve ourselves."

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds