I wear two hats when I write this blog of mine. First and foremost, I manage a small charity in a small Scottish town called Dumfries. Ours is a front door that opens onto the darker corners of the crumbling world that is Britain 2015. We hand out 5000 emergency food parcels a year in a town that is home to 50,000 souls. Then, as you can see from all of the book covers above, I am also a thriller writer. If you enjoy the blog, you might just enjoy the books. The link below takes you to the whole library in the Kindle store. They can be had for a couple of quid each.

Sunday, August 11, 2013


Slowly but surely the pieces of the jigsaw that will at some stage turn into my next book are slotting into place. I reckon I have a title now, though past experience suggests that titles tend to change many times by the time the final full stop is in its place. As of now, the thing is down to be called ‘A Flickering Flame’ and it will run from 1905 to a couple of years in the future.

I have always held a fascination for the small moments in time which suddenly turn history on its axis; moments like the tiny fragment of rock which falls onto a bank of snow to kick off an avalanche which twenty minutes later wipes out a whole town.

The fascination extends to the places where these key moments played out. Like the steps in front of the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King made a speech which ensured than nothing could ever be the same again. Or the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign over the gates of Auschwitz. Or the non-descript looking concrete bridge that spans the Rhine at Arnhem. Or the deserted and overgrown white walled slave fort on an island in the River Gambia.
Every day at First Base we bear witness to the quiet and often toxic fallout from events that for a few brief moments appeared on the news and then faded to black. Such echoes can be found in the washed out eyes of the veterans who seek support. A sniper kill on the Ballymurphy Estate in 1975. A screaming teenager with no kneecaps on a grimy pavement in the Bogside.  A family of corpses on the floor of a Bosnian kitchen. Pieces of Argentinian soldier in the muddy bogs of Mount Longden. Snapshots of events from years and years ago which the world has long moved on from and forgotten. Seldom glanced at pages of Wikipedia. But for those who were involved, those desperate seconds and minutes and hours and days remain sharp focused and as painful as a rope burn.

Three of the characters in the early stages of ‘A Flickering Flame’ see everything they hold certain and clear changed forever in a few desperate hours on 25 September 1915 in a small French coal mining village called Loos.

For some reason I cannot really explain, the Battle of Loos has always held a fascination for me ever since I read of it in Robert Graves’s ‘Goodbye to All That’ as a teenager. It is odd how forgotten it has become as history has settled on its memories of the First War.

There was much that was momentous about Loos. It was the first time that the Brits and our allies launched a major offensive against the German lines and it was the first time that we started to learn the lesson that human flesh against high velocity machine gun bullets represents a pretty unfair fight.

We had our own special weapon that day: chlorine gas. In the days before the battle, thousands of unwieldy gas canisters were lugged up the support trenches and put in place on the front line. The theory was simple. The weather forecast promised a wind that would shove the released gas across no-man’s land and into the German trenches. Chlorine gas is heavier than air and so the idea was that the gas cloud would roll along the ground and then drop down into the trenches and bunkers and gun emplacements of the enemy.

Well, it all looked pretty good on paper but things usually do. By four in the morning it was clear that things were not about to go as planned. The wind had changed during the night and now a slow breeze was easing its way down from the German held high ground and over the lines of British trenches.

So it was a no brainer. Cancel the attack and wait for the right wind conditions. But the High Command didn’t see it that way and they ordered the gas to be released at the appointed time regardless of the direction of the breeze. The idiotic order was duly followed and the gas made its way into the British support trenches and lots of our guys were killed. The frontline soldiers responded to the whistles and jumped up to be duly chopped down by the German guns.

Lots of guys died. Lots of guys were horribly wounded. Lots of guys were mentally shattered.

A few yards were gained and then given up the next day.

Everybody blamed everybody else and it was generally agreed that the gas masks our lads had been issued weren’t worth a light. Here are a couple of pictures. It is hard to get your head around the vision of hell that must have come to Loos as thousands of guys in these masks emerged from their trenches coughing and choking amidst green clouds of chlorine.

My fictional characters will watch the fiasco from the German lines. And when the day’s fighting is over, nothing will ever be the same again.

So a couple of days ago, it was time to see what the place is like now. We followed the SatNav down the French autoroutes past Lille and past Lens until the twin slag heaps that gloomily stare down on the village of Loos appeared on the horizon. The whole area is a typical coal mining area. Slag heaps and faded villages and towns and a sense of wasted lives and boarded up shops. These days such places are described as the ‘Post-Industrial West. Detroit and Pittsburg and Motherwell and Leipzig and Turin. Places where the shells of once mighty factories are now crumbling away to mere piles of bricks. On the day of the battle, the ground was dominated by a vast double coal winch which the Brit soldiers nicknamed ‘London Bridge’ because of its resemblance to the iconic Thames crossing. The old winching gear was well and truly trashed during the battle but it was replaced after the war. Here’s what it looked like back then.

The coal mine is still there. Well, what was once a coal mine is still there. Now just a clutch of looming empty buildings surrounded by overgrown mounds of earth. Only a few years ago, thousands of men must have walked and driven up the hill from the village to start their shifts. Not any more. The mine at Loos is now very much post-industrial. There are lots of wild flowers and butterflies and a long view across the plain to the distant sea. There is a garden centre. There is a community theatre. There are some small workshops. But there were no people. Just a couple of distant figures framed on the skyline as they climbed the steep gradient of one of the twin pyramid shaped slag heaps. Even after all these years nothing but the barest of shrubs can grow on the toxic mountains of poisoned earth. In the 50's my dad was part of a Leeds University project to try and identify plants which could thrive on slag. It doesn't seem as if much progress has been made if the slag heaps of Loos are anything to go by.

What a place to end up it must have seemed for the thousands of soldiers on both sides. The Germans held the high ground and dug their deep trenches and concrete machine gun emplacements. The main complex was known as the Hohenzollen Redoubt and it proved to be predictably impregnable. The Brits lined up on the plain and had to attack up a steep hill in the shadow of the slag heaps and the pit itself.

No doubt the whole area would have been poisoned and polluted and stained by coal dust. Grey fields. Grey woods. Grey houses. Grey faces. A grey, industrial, polluted misery of a place. And early in the morning fifty thousand of so men released clouds of green chlorine gas and donned gas masks and marched at fifty thousand of so other guys who watched from the top of the hill.

And then over the days and weeks that followed, thousands of postmen took telegrams to thousands of front doors in towns and cities and villages in England and Scotland and Wales and Ireland and India and Canada and Germany. The ultimate bearers of bad news. The worst news. Thousands lost for a few yards gained.

In September 1915, Loos held the world’s attention for a while. But not any more. Not for a long time now. I wonder why? The obvious and usual reasons I guess. History is always written by the victors and we as victors have obviously decided we would rather not dwell on the fact that we released all that chlorine gas on the morning of 25 September 1915 and that the chlorine gas we released killed a whole bunch of our own guys in their unfit for purpose gas masks.

So now Loos is one of those forgotten places. Once upon a time there was a battle. Once upon a time there was a coal mine. Once upon a time there were jobs. Once upon a time there was a great killing.

And now?

Old buildings. A winch that hasn’t turned a wheel in years. Wildflowers. A soft wind. A pair of slag heaps. The distant hum of traffic on the motorway. Cars in the car park of the garden centre. A couple of dog walkers. A community theatre in the old engine house which is closed until September.

And thousands upon thousands of ghosts. Ghosts from Prussia and Saxony and Bavaria and Westphalia and Lancashire and Yorkshire and Fife and County Antrim and Punjab and Ontario.

Quiet ghosts.

Wikipedia ghosts.

Forgotten ghosts.

Faded memories now. Part of what we now call the Post-Industrial West.

Ghosts who we visited last week.

Soon I will try and capture the look and feel and smell of those long forgotten desperate hours and those hours will become a part of ‘A Flickering Flame’.

Standing there by the old, quiet coal mine I wondered how the ghosts would feel about it? Who knows? Do they want to be remembered or forgotten? Or do they not care at all?

They gave no clue.

Only the hint of a memory in a soft summer wind.    


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