Why it matters to understand the causes of the First World War to avoid a third


Fig.1. Buried Alive, Otto Dix (1927 based on his experience of the Third Battle of Ypres, ‘Passchendaele in 1917)

One hundred years on it is worth comparing the causes of the First World War and to dread that events in Eastern Ukraine as indicators of the wrong response to the fragmentation of old empires: one hundred years ago the Ottoman Empire’s demise resulted in fractures at its edge – the Balkans and Middle East. Germany, eager to bolster another weakening empire, its ally the Austro-Hungarian Empire, took steps to test its power and influence to destruction by pushing Austro-Hungary to deal with Serbia with a swift conquest. To what degree is Putin testing the strength or weakness of the Russian Federation by the decisions taken first in Syria to support Assad and then in Ukraine to support the pro-Russian separatists? To what degree did Putin achieve this with his swift action in Crimea? What legacy did the British and French Empires leave in this region when they divided up their spoils in the Middle East?

There is an exhibition of original art work by Otto Dix at the De La Warr, Bexhill. Brilliant.

Stop the World Cup from Russian 2018 NOW

The First World War – 100 years ago and we think that Putin’s behaviour is to be accommodated? HE is responsible for too much hideous behaviour: Syria yesterday, Ukraine today, Chetchnya the day before. I am starting a campaign to stop the World Cup in Russia in 2018. Our family heritage goes back to this region and stories of repeated oppression. What has changed in 100 years? Nothing. The Western Front now lies on a line between Poland, Ukraine and Istanbul. The danger is how WE mamage the further collapse of ‘Russia’. How on earth is he back in power?? How can the Russian constitution allow this? He had his turn.The whole idea of democracry is that you give someone a go then vote them out to give someone else a shot. How and who buggered around with the Russian constitution so much that Putin keeps coming back? Are not then Russian people disgusted by him? Surely Putin should be history by now??


Less ‘e’ means more learning

Fig.1. My Personal Learning Environment

For someone who completed the Master of Arts Open and Distance Education over a year ago and has done further MAODE modules here and other MA modules elsewhere it surprises even me to recognise I learn, and probably do, more when I am NOT in front of the computer (iPad, laptop or desktop).

These days I have no choice but to read books and when I do this is how I set about them:

Read and attach PostIts

Write up, selectively, into a notebook the bits that I’ve picked out (there is a further filtering process here)

Then type these notes up into a Google Doc (typically into a table).

I have become meticulous about citing as I go along as to want to use a quote or idea and not know where it came from can take a considerable time to recover.

An eBook isn’t only on the Kindle (now Paperwhite), but also on the iPad and sometimes even on the laptop or desktop. I read in tight columns with few words, fast – like a TV autocue. As I go along I highlight. Sometimes bookmark something important or big. And from time to time add a note. On other screens the highlights can be colour sorted, so I may theme these as highlights for an essay, for their narrative value, or simply their quirkiness (so I can blog about it).

Interaction with the content in any and many ways is key. Having a presentation to give or essay to write is crucial, otherwise you can read a book and highlight/bookmark far too much of the thing.

Invariably I follow up references. I may loop off to read parts of these references immediately, which may be a paragraph in another book, sometimes a book I can find free online, sometimes an eBook for £2 or so … occasionally a hefty tome that gives me pause for thought. I have a student library card so can get down to the University of Sussex in 30 minutes. Here I’ve just read a few chapters from a biography on Plumer as I’m preparing something on aspects of Third Ypres, the Battle of Passchendaele. My self-directed reading list my have expanded to some dozen texts by now: divisional histories, several biographies on Haig, several books on military history with specialist books on the machine gun corps and gas. My notes are always created in Google Docs and in this case the folder shared with a fellow student who has added his own notes too. The learning process is akin to making a sculpture out of papier mache – I keep attaching little pieces and am starting to get a clear idea of the thing.

Is reading still one of the most efficient ways to pass information from one person/source to another? It’s quicker than a lecture. Good for many things. Were I studying Law surely reading is everything, whereas Chemistry or Physics you may benefit from and prefer the video/animation, the lecture with charts.

I’ve just been thinking

Learning works if it makes you think; this is why most videos don’t work. Watching TV you ‘sit back’ and turn off. How often does it make you think?

Books require some engagement – the activity is called reading. You think a bit of you takes notes. You think even more if you interpret what you read in a way that makes it your own. This is best achieved if there is a specific goal, typically to research and write a response to a problem addressed in an essay title. In the longer term to sit an exam or to write a longer piece, such as a thesis, or to give a presentation. To read without such application is to row your boat without a rudder.

If in the past I’ve said that is it ‘time and effort’ that leads to learning, then I’d now reduce two words to one. Thinking = time + effort.

What do you think?

More like a ‘House of Cards’

I use the metaphor of essay writing being like sewing a tapestry but wonder if making a house of cards wouldn’t be better?

In many respects this is how I now write: notes from copious reading reduced to frames in a presentation, and even notes on Rolledex cards that are in time grouped into a coherent argument and then ‘stacked’ into shape to form an essay. Looked at in this way an essay is a case of assembling the right parts in a logical order. Looked at this way, on reading through, you can identify a card that is out of place or faulty. It takes great care if the entire edifice is not to fall, or, however reluctantly, you have to dismantle the thing and build it up again from scratch. THIS is where I fail to get the illusive distinction – faced, inevitably with such a house of cards, I am loath to fix that card, wherever it might be, knowing that to reassemble the ‘house’ will take time and effort and a degree or repeating a task you thought was done.

How many years has it taken me to realise that results are the product of the effort you put in, that being a ‘jobsworth’ is counter productive when it comes to studying. You may tick the boxes, but if you know you haven’t got your head around a thing then you know soon enough where you grades will fall.

I can be honest and proud of what I know I can achieve now having recovered from marks at times that got close to ‘fail’. I now know why I fail at the opposite end, falling a few marks short of a distinction. It is down to persistence and effort right at the end.

Reaching such heights did I suffer from vertigo at the end? Do I go into self-destruct mode? Sometimes.

Having ‘finished’ with a few days to spare I went off the boil, I even ‘celebrated’ what I felt was more than good enough. But I held back from the ultimate test – reading out the essay, recording this and then listening back as objectively as I could. Rather, I ‘looked through it’ and noticed the odd glitch and one need for a reference and then a loose thread, a knot badly tied – that would need take time and effort. Like spotting a mistake in a tapestry once it is finished and knowing that the only answer is to flip the think over, carefully cut out the offending threads, then with huge care stitch in something that would fit better.

Rather than doing this, having mentally ‘put the thing in the post’ I went out. Coming home that evening I very nearly forget even to submit the thing before the 12.00 midnight deadline.


Two marks short of a distinction.

Of course, I should be adequately satisfied with the result. I’m not because seeing what the examiners picked up I can only curse, as a few simple fixes – a sentence that wasn’t a sentence, a turn of phrase that made sense to me but no one else … a reference that was blatantly missing that could so easily have been added as I’d already cited the book often. These might have added 1 1/2 marks … then, to have stayed home, unpicked and re-written a thought THAT would have added 3 to 5 marks.

So, if the personal satisfaction of achieving a distinction remains illusive I have only myself to blame. The issue of course is that any and all writing I may do if it doesn’t seek to attain, and attain such a standard will continue to be the differentiation between a student and ‘scholar’, an amateur and an academic, a wannabe author and someone who is published or produced.

On the one hand I ‘suffer’ as a perfectionist, on the other I hold back from committing and sticking to a goal. I use the artist’s excuse that you can overdraw, overpaint and add too much and destroy a thing. This isn’t the case with writing. It may spoil the fun of constructing a piece of writing by putting yourself through the pain, but it is the mental pain, and therefore the time and effort, that is required at this level.

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How online courses boost college completion but lower actual learning (in 3 charts)

This is interesting. Whilst differences between online and traditional courses can be studied though, increasingly we all learn in a blended way – the traditional course uses the Internet, while the online learner will invariable talk about what they are doing with others around them – and books are traditional surely whether a hardback or eBook?


‘The apples were black, the table top like tar, the  carpet a mass of grey patterns, even the flames in the grate were black and when he caught himself in the mirror above the fireplace it was a silhouette. There was no colour in his face, no colour in his arms and through the window every spring plant looked stiff and cold. He held himself so still, so steady that he began to rock, just a gentle swaying back and forth. He heard his heart beat. How it thumped and thundered and would not stop. Bang it went! Bang. Bang. And the clock joined in. Bang it went. And Bang again. ‘Your time is up’, it said. Bang. Bang. Bang. This time yesterday she’d been alive’. He thought.

Week Two with Writer’s South East at the Writer’s Place, Brighton yesterday evening.

I’m enjoying how these sessions work. Sixteen or so of us. A little talk, a bit of doing, then sharing in pairs or small groups doing what we’re here to learn to do, or to find the confidence to do. ‘Bereavement’ was the second word of the second exercise. In our group of four we each took it in turns to read out what we had spent six or seven minutes writing.

I’d thought I’d struggled with the previous word. These we took from a bowl (I have them all to work on today as a series of exercises).

Whatever I do is for characters and events that are long-established in my head; I have the story, just in need of a way to tell it.

What was my word here?

‘If she could wash his skin without disturbing a hair’

‘She washed the young soldier’s body as if she were painting a picture in smoke’.

‘It was like picking eggshell out of a froth of meringue’.

‘It was like … ‘

‘She remembered how she’d once … ‘

‘It was like removing hair from someone’s eye, then having to do so over and over again and again. Each time she’d clam her breathing, steady her hand, then reach over the wound in the soldier’s chest to remove another piece of shrapnel’.

‘Her caress was warm, like a halo’.

This week the theme was ‘Show and Tell’

Before we got started some ideas were shared on how to build a profile for your character – last week was on plot and character … or that plot is character. Ideas were shared on answering the what, where, why, how and when questions, on writing a diary in character (or blogging it perhaps?). This is necessary to know how your character is going to respond.

When it comes to ‘showing not telling’ my immediate thoughts went to Alfred Hitchcock – he notably said that talk on camera was no different, nor more important than music. I thought of how scripts are written putting onus on the visual and just the other day John Hegarty (he of Bartle Bogle Hegarty) saying that words got in the way of communication. From this, I conclude that text should aim to compensate for the visual, to allow the reader to create an image in their mind’s eye. Novels were the early movies.

‘Showing’ matters to create empathy, to increase reader participation.

It should be:

  • Sensory
  • Descriptive
  • Revealing
  • Significant
  • Specific

and use

  • Actions
  • Body Language
  • Objects
  • Dialogue
  • Gesture
  • Possessions
  • Tone
  • Complexity
  • Detail


We were asked to imagine what a character might have in their pocket. I came up with:

  1. A ticket to an airshow in June 1911 featuring the aeronaut Gustav Hamel
  2. An elastic band attached to a short wire hook
  3. A pair of elegant/expensive delicate (I should have said female) kid gloves
  4. A penknife with a bradawl and hard carved handle. The blade well used and sharp, the bradawl as sharp as a knitting needle.
  5. And a handful of pennies, farthings and thrupenny pieces sticky and smelling of beer.
  6. And a policeman’s whistle.


This failed to reveal that ‘Ettie’ is a young woman. What in her pocket would reveal that she was female? Well, the pocket would have been in a smock or skirt. Research required. What did young girls have in their pockets in 1911!!!


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Europe sleepwalks to war


Having just written a 4000 word assignment on why Britain went to war in 1914 I feel closer to the evidence than I would otherwise. I drew entirely from the hundreds of original documents now available, largely compiled with editorial comment from the likes of John Röhl, Annika Mombauer and Imanuel Geiss. I blame Kaiser Wilhelm II and Reichs Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg entirely – aided and abatted by Motlke and Jagow while Britain, through our Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey tried to get the powers around the conference table – anathema to the desires of Germany who pushed Austria-Hungary into a fight knowing that it would draw in Russia, then France … though hopefully not Britain.

Originally posted on That's How The Light Gets In:

1914 NY Times

Map of Europe in 1914 (as envisaged by the New York Times in 2013)

As I write this, Russian military forces are massing at the border with Ukraine and armed men have seized  government buildings in the Crimean capital, hoisting a Russian flag over the regional parliament building.  A regional conflict threatens confrontation between Russia and other European powers.

Sound familiar? Perhaps because I recently finished reading The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark’s much-praised history of how Europe ended up going to war in 1914, the parallels with the events of that July are just a bit disturbing.  The question that arises after reading his meticulously-researched and detailed account of the diplomatic manoeuvrings in the months and days before war broke out is whether today’s architecture of international communication and dialogue  via the UN and the European Union will help us avoid the disaster that befell Europe after a little local…

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Story is character

Decades of starting a piece of fiction and as many decades often getting into a mess some 70,000 words in I feel I am eating humble pie by ‘doing a course’. You do and can learn by doing, but it helps to have guidance.


Fig 1. The Story Tree, by Wend Greenalgh, my tutor for the rest of May.

I quickly saw how this could unlock many stories; I have some dozen partly written and sometimes completed novels and screenplays – written over 26 years. Few see the light of day. Some were sent out. All had the same problem; plot heavy. That I had figured out, ‘the story arc’, but there is little appeal if it is all bridge-like arc with little to attract you to the key character(s) that will hold your attention.

My issue now is how to start again, and where and what to start with?

Escape from Alien Zoo

The Watersprites

Angel of the North

The Time Telescope

The Contents of my Brain

The Little Duke

Or perhaps, as it was short and worked ‘Listening In’ … I wrote, directed and produced this as a short film (16mm) and sold the end result to Channel 4 where it was shown and featured in a few transmissions in 1996-2000. It also went to a few film festivals.

When you have given up large chunks of your life to writing you can understand why I feel nervous about setting out on this journey again; once started I will commit over a few years; I just don’t want to run myself into another dead-end.

The Writing Fiction course I have started is a most modest start and undertaking. A few hours each Thursday evening in Brighton for the month of May. But as I feel know, far more than decades ago, everything and anything can be taught. It doesn’t come by osmosis unless you have a writer parent or grandparent you learn from as a child.