Jan 31st

So how the hell do you write a biography?

By Daedalus

This is my current project. A biography of a fellow called Duncan Menzies, who was a test pilot during the second world war. I have a fair amount of material on which to base it, and an awful lot of gaps. Most of what's missing is the voice of the man himself. I get the feeling I know him a little. A sort of great uncle I met once or twice when I was too young to really take it in.

I freely admit I do not know what the hell I am doing.

It's different to my usual non fiction, which is invariably about machines. OK, so it's about the machines and the men who worked with them. I like to think they are human stories. Yet this is nakedly about one man and his life and contribution, and it has had me stumped. I have been flogging through reports of flights, documents of the sort of uniquely official stamp that can only come from the British Empire. Documents that read like 'organised resistance broken down and no real objectives for troops or aircraft. Leaders still at large and must be captured. Small parties of young men passively hostile. Police to hunt down leaders. Pyramid at Denghurs to be blown down.'

So. What to do? I happened to pick up a copy of Sara Wheeler's 'Too Close To The Sun', a biography of Denys Finch Hatton - you know, Robert Redford in 'Out Of Africa', the fellow who started the Royal family's commitment to conservation in preference to blowing holes in wildlife. As an aside, my chap, Menzies, flew Finch Hatton, when the Prince of Wales borrowed an RAF squadron to jaunt about the Sudan looking for creatures. But Wheeler's book was a revelation. It was the voice, you see. I.e. there is one. I don't know how many times I've been told. I've done the Self Edit Course. Voice, voice, voice. And yet my dull, dull book didn't have one. I was taking the most remarkable life and turning into mud. I could hear Wheeler as I read her text. She doesn't impose herself on the narrative. She tells the story. She takes us by the hand and leads us through it. She doesn't perch at the edge, embarrassed to be there. It's quite wonderful.

I hope I have not simply stolen Wheeler's voice, though I have probably done something close to it. But I realised I needed to express my own sense of wonder at the things this man did. Flying two thousand miles across the Middle East from Cairo to Kurdistan. Rubbing shoulders with exotic adventurers who blazed trails through wilderness and society marriages. Climbing into a flying death trap day after day in the hope of making it less of a death trap. I need to bring myself to the party and make myself useful.

Anyway. Whether I have succeeded or not is another matter. The publisher will probably hate it. Here's an excerpt. Whaddya reckon?

This was all leading up to the culmination of the course, which would be an adventure in its own right. A formation flight to Diana, and return to Abu Sueir. Almost two thousand miles of flying. The Atlases would cross a vast swathe of territory, and four countries. Egypt, Palestine, Transjordan, and, finally, Iraq. The flight would serve training purposes, of course. But it was also the Empire testing its reach, exercising its muscles. The air route from Cairo to Baghdad was one of the key early achievements of Trenchard’s postwar policy. It was the primary means of reinforcing forces stationed in ‘Mespot’. It has been likened to an aerial Suez canal. The empty spaces on the map were being overlaid not just with Imperial writ but technology, in the all-metal aeroplanes able to cross continents as long as there was fuel for their 500 horsepower engines, and now invisibly, in radio waves from their wireless telegraph gear. This was no mere jaunt. The danger in the territory was real and could be deadly – spaces where no rescue could be made from the air, a bone-dry plateau that rose to 2,000 feet above sea level, mountains that could snare an unwary pilot in poor visibility or at night. The Bedouin, awash with rifles from the liberal supply to the Arab revolt in W.W.1, had no hesitation in taking pot-shots at any passing aircraft.

On 24 August 1932, they set off. Duncan was piloting Atlas Mk.I K1016, L.A.C. Spring accompanying. The first leg was Abu Sueir to Ramleh (Ramla) in Palestine, two and a quarter hours away. They refuelled, and flew on from Ramleh the next 45 minutes to Amman, where they spent the night. The next morning, the ‘C’ Flight course took off for Landing Ground D, fifty minutes away. This was one of two airfields scraped out of the desert on the Cairo-Baghdad route to enable aircraft to refuel in the vast spaces between population centres. There were numerous temporary L.G.s but ‘D’ and ‘V’ were those that had permanent fuel dumps.

The next stage was a two-hour leg to Rutbah, an old fort with a well that had been transformed into a rest stop. Before reaching the site they had to cross the vast Transjordan lava field, where no aircraft could land safely and not even the Bedouin saw any good reason to go. Even with Wireless Telegraphy, the chances of a crew coming down in the lava field were not favourable. The lava field remained a vast barrier across the Transjordan until a road was finally bulldozed through it during the Second World War.

Rutbah was barely more established than Landing Ground ‘D’ in 1932. A photograph in Duncan’s collection shows the almost comically small square of the fort, tiny walled enclosures outside it with tents in, and a pale track slashing across the landscape. From Rutbah, the Atlases continued, 55 minutes to Landing Ground ‘V’, refuel, then two hours to Hinaidi, just East of Baghdad.

They rested at Hinaidi on the 26th, then proceeded for the two hour flight to Kirkuk, the 27th, an hour and a quarter on to Mosul. Another overnight stop, then another hour and ten minutes to Diana in Kurdistan, nestling in the mountain ridges that skirt the North-West edge of Iraq, just ten miles from the border with Persia.

The sheer distance covered can be seen with the maps used for this trip, a few of which Duncan kept. The ribbon of country between capitals was charted by narrow maps, a single panel deep and six wide. The map remaining in Duncan’s collection covers the course from El Jid, just inside Iraq, to Baghdad. The route to fly – the only route – is marked in red, point to point between landing grounds. Alongside each leg is printed compass bearings to fly and the distance, repeated in the opposite direction so the aviator can follow the map from end to end. Weaving gently around the red line, in dark blue, is ‘The Furrow’ – a track marked out by vehicles in the early 20s to provide ‘Bradshaw’ navigation through the wilderness – ‘Bradshawing’ was the practice of navigating by railway lines. It would be difficult to think of anything more British than creating a false railway line through the desert for the Empire’s aviators to follow. Each stretch of ‘the furrow’ indicates the distance by car, and a description of the terrain – IX to 8 (probably for reasons of clarity, ‘8’ is written in Arabic numerals while all the other landing grounds are rendered in Roman) “going bumpy in places.” V to IV is “very good going.” There is a table of distances in the bottom right corner, some of which Duncan has transferred in pencil to the appropriate part of the route.

The map is the third sheet the flight would have needed from Cairo, and at least one more would be required to get them to Diana. A conventional map of the Baghdad area from the era reveals how useless such a map would be for aviators. Most of the area would be wasted. The few air routes might as well have been railway lines. To diverge from them would be unthinkable.

And yet, in this vast Empire, it was still a small world. “Duncan led five Atlas aircraft on training flight from Abu Sueir to Iraq,” wrote Duncan’s wife ‘Scott’ years later on the reverse of a photograph taken during this trip. “They breakfasted here at Diana in the Kurdistan Hills with a company of the Iraq Levies – the C.O. of which turned out to be the father of two boys who were at Alton Burn with him.”

There are two photographs of that strange-not strange meeting, showing the pilots in their solar topees and shorts posing in front of the line of Atlases, flaking Captain McKewan, immaculate in his jodhpurs and ‘Slouch Hat’ with its plume.


Jan 30th

Are we totally and utterly stuffed?

By Gerry

Thought I ought to share this, folks. Not that I totally understand it. But it seems like demagogues can do anything with this tool.


Comments from tech savvy people welcome. Scarap that. Comments from *people* welcome...

Jan 30th

the history of religions

By mike

I I can recommend the books of Karen Armstrong   

    This hasn’t got much to do with recent events, but I had been listening to a few radio programmes over the weekend and the word ‘Islamophobia‘ was mentioned again and again.   English people tend not to learn other languages and seem not to have taken much account of other religious languages either.

   I do not have a family, or had been  involved in any teaching profession, but I had been under the impression that religious studies are now multi-faith.   This may not  have been the case  with older generations.  We do not know the history of religions.

    My parents were not of religious persuasion and I was not bought up to adhere to any religious creed. (I think I am a Catholic.)    It was not until I took a university course - in which comparative religion was included in a module - that I had much idea of things.  

     I came across Karen Armstrong’s writing some years ago when I read her book ‘ A  History of God’ and have subsequently read other of her works.    She has written about Islam  -  and many other religions - in a way that is understandable to a layman.  She is an academic but her books are available in religious bookshops.

    Islam is not a case of one size fits all.

Jan 26th

Torture in historical fiction

By AlanP

It’s important to get these things right when writing against a historical backdrop. In medieval times and lasting up to the 16th century, torture was exceptionally brutal and usually inflicted serious and life changing injuries. Of course if the victim was shortly to have their head hacked off by several blows from a blunt axe, or to be reduced by a few licks of flame from some well-seasoned oak, that changed life didn’t last long anyway.

But sometimes torture was an essential or even a benevolent act. Should someone confess before torture, then there was a concern that the confession might be false, made in order to avoid torture, the victim having preferred death without being tortured first and ignoring the possibility that they may be let off. Although there was the question of naming co-conspirators to be considered, there was always the possibility that the suspect might be innocent. Thus, in order to establish truth, because people always tell the truth under torture has been ever the abiding principle, the process was carried through anyway.

I confess my researches are incomplete and I have not repeated them recently. When I looked into it I didn’t find any examples of people who were subjected to judicial torture who were subsequently found innocent - having already confessed. There are examples of people unable to stand, dislocated joints and stuff I expect, being allowed to sit on a chair before being burned, which was a kindness. As I say my research is incomplete. I could speculate that people being tortured tend to seek to confirm what the authorities want to hear in order to bring the agony to an end, but evidence is generally sparse and kept secret by various means, depending on the age.

Should you feature the subject in your work (you know, making stuff up, Day Job = President, etc etc) I suggest checking out the history and practice of the activity before committing yourself to paper.

Jan 25th

Forget the hearts and flowers, chocs and champagne

By SecretSpi

February 14th is International Book Giving Day! And maybe your chance to give a 'Bookquet' instead? (sorry)

While there seem to be too many international days of this, that and the kitchen sink around, I do rather like this idea, which has been going since 2012.

It's a volunteer initiative to 'get books into the hands of as many children as possible.'

On the website (click here) an alarming statistic is quoted that, in the UK, 1/3 of children do not own books. Not good.

There are plenty of ideas and links for how to give books and otherwise support non-profit organisations relating to children's books.

The first idea is to 'gift a book to a friend or family member.' So I'm going to do just that for my Cloudie friends. I'll give a copy of either 'The Bother in Burmeon' or 'Trouble in Teutonia' away.

Both books are retro-style adventures aimed at ages 8-12, so if you'd like one for yourself or a young relative - or even to pass on to a good cause - please send me a private message here with:

Name and Address (Where to post the book - I'm willing to post worldwide)

Which book you'd like (Bother or Trouble)

If you'd like a dedication, who should it be to?

Please send your messages by 3rd Feb, so I can pull one out of an RAF officer's cap and post in time for 14th Feb.

Good luck!

I'd also be interested if anyone else is inspired by this day to donate books - would love to hear your ideas.

P.S. Tony, if you are reading this, did you ever hear how Dillon got on on his travels?



Jan 24th

Verbal precission

By Tony

Just for a change, here's a blog that has got absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with politics - aprt from its opening sentense. It's actually to do with writing or wordcraft, at least.

As good writers we always try to find and use the most aposite verb, don't we, avoiding the necessity of propping up lesser alternatives with intrusive adverbs. I've recently been thinking about some verbs that seem to have only one unique application (I may be wrong - do, please, suggest oher uses if you can think of any.)

What started me off was the mention, in another place, of the verb 'bark' used in the sense of 'to bark your shin' (to bark: to scrape off the skin in the same way as to bark a tree is to remove its outer layer.) But, applied to the body, we only ever bark our shins, nothing else.

We can stave our thumbs; not sure that can be applied elswhere.

We can stub our toes.

Can you think of any othere verbs that are applied uniquely to just one part of the body? Or, indeed, perhaps similar examples in other areas, not bodily related.

Jan 23rd

New ideas for the new year?

By Squidge

My most recent writing group meeting tried a few tasks based on 'new'. If you fancy having a look at them and trying a few out, I've blogged about them on the Scribbles.

Click HERE to go direct...

Jan 23rd

The Dreaded Rewrite: Do it or Ditch it?

By Mshake1980



“Books aren’t written - they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it”. - Michael Crichton

The dreaded rewrite is an epic task that every writer must face and to clarify, by rewrite I don’t mean extensive corrections or rigorous editing. I mean the process whereby a writer takes their beloved two hundred plus pages of blood, sweat and tears and pretty much pens the entire story from scratch. Rewriting is born of the assumption that the first draft will contain the authors uninhibited passion, with characters and plotlines having resulted from a spontaneous surge of creative energy, and that rewriting is necessary in order to demonstrate artistic control, whereby the author takes care of all those niggly technical details and contemplates the novel from the reader’s perspective. When rewriting my first (and only) novel, I did so with a brutality that boarded on sadistic, with many of my central characters ending up slain. By doing so the story that I wanted to present was tighter and more discernible. Or so I thought...


To read the rest of my post go click here.

Written by Michelle Shakespeare @ Ready2Write.co.uk

Jan 23rd

A liberal conscience

By mike

 A liberal conscience.


    I am at a loose end and  can’t get down to anything.  I  have been attempting essays, so there might be non-sequiturs here and there.  (Cutting and pasting)


    I have  interests other than being the Pol Pot of political correctness. Researching  literary biography had been a hobby.  I think I might have attempted English Literature.   Theatre is my favourite medium and it is most unlikely that I would have succeeded in the literary world as I do not have a brain. 

     My brother had one of these and he lived the American dream. 

   He abandoned  England  in his early twenties, and started  a  computer business in New York.  I remember he sent us a photograph of his house. Or so we assumed!  

    This house, which is the size of an English suburban home, had been the shed in which he kept the tractor with which he mowed his lawn.

    He was extremely clever and had blue eyes.  My eyes are brown and my life has been the opposite of his.  

   My brother is no longer with us.

    In early December, I had e.mailed his widow - on the day of his birthday - and I received a diatribe in return.  I suspect my fault had been a comment I had made along the lines that America had changed.  ‘Denzel Washington now played the lead in a remake of “The Magnificent Seven.‘    She replied:

   ...You obviously have been brain-washed by the liberal, propagandistic media who are/were all behind Hillary.  Our left, “progressives” are about as bad as the fascists, as, if you don’t agree with them, you are worse than bad. And since the media are brainless, superficial, unquestioning, empty headed lemmings, no facts or truth reaches the general public.  I see it also when I watch BBC news. Your press is equally bad....  It’s ironic that with all the communications technologies out there, it is easier to fool, mislead and outright lie to the public...  etc etc..

    My brother’s widow is a  mainline Trump supporter.  I am silenced.   America will now have a child as  President.  One can only hope that he can be physically restrained when  close to any red button of serious intent.

     About this time, Trump had complained about the way his wife had been satirised in a stage production and the actress had to apologize. (I cannot remember the exact details of this, and I might be wrong)   Surely, the actress should have been booed off the  stage. But I understand California/Hollywood wishes to secede from the union. 

     is a liberal audience  an assumption?  (This was another essay)  But does  my bother’s widow have a valid point?    As Trump clearly eptomises America, he must be given due respect.   Trump has been transformed!

     My bother’s widow had written ,  ‘...Trump is a DO-ER, a highly successful business man, a fabulous negotiator, which Obama was NOT, is highly intelligent, and unfortunately the ignorant media has been mis-interpreting & twisting everything he said during and after the campaign’

     I heard the election campaign on Radio 4.  My   radio is turned on as background.   But  events were filtered by informed opinion, in that experts were constantly called on both sides.  However, I certainly got the impression that Trump is a white supremacist.  Had BBC 4 lied?

    I listened to a comedy programme on Radio 4  last Saturday, and there were many uncomplimentary comments about Trump.    The BBC is, however, quite impartial and there were just as many uncomplimentary remarks on Corbin.   



‘You Can Never Tell’


(This is about the problems of  literary research - the balance of probabilities)


 I have been  virtually housebound for the past two weeks, and have indulged in some  very heavy reading. Over the weekend, it was the turn of first volume of Michael Holroyd’s  biography of Bernard Shaw which had been on my bookshelves.

     There is a London production of ‘Saint Joan‘ which is my reason for reading the book.  There will be a live cinema feed on 16 Feb if you wish to see it  ( ‘Saint Joan’ reminded me of  MargaretThatcher - but that is another story)

     My grandfather had been a composer of light music and Bernard Shaw wrote music criticism under the pseudonym of ‘Corno di Bassetto‘  who - Shaw informs us - was a prominent  member of the Reed family.  Had Bernard Shaw heard of my grandfather?  If he had done so, I do suspect he would have found him a fly not worth squashing.

    But nothing is straightforward

     They shared the same publisher - Grant Richards

    Grant Richards has his own entry in English Literature,   Shaw liked Richards because he had been a scoundrel.  He liked Frank Harris for the same reason.  My grandfather had been a scoundrel of a similar type,  Had Richards mentioned  another of his  scoundrel authors to Shaw? 

    Both Shaw and my grandfather began their publishing careers with another publisher - ‘The Walter Scott publishing company”.

     But, in a ‘Who was Who’ entry, my grandfather states that he had been the 1st Violinist of he ‘Carl Rosa Opera Company?   Had Shaw heard my grandfather play the violin.?  He would certainly have reported on the company and concerts at the Crystal Palace

      Many years ago, I looked into Richards, the Carl Rosa Company, etc and found nothing,  There is a problem in researching scoundrels of this type, especially someone who  had been compared to on Von Munchausen!

     The dates don’t quite fit and the balance of probabilities suggest that Shaw would not have been aware my grandfather but ‘You Never Can Tell!”  They were of the same generation. However,it is most unlikely their paths crossed.


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