Friday, 25 September 2015

Saturday 25 September 1915

This is an extract from 'Dust'. It is taken from the chapter entitled 'Saturday 25 September 1915'. 
'Dust' is the story of one young working class man, almost invisible to history, who died on the first morning of the Battle of Loos. Nothing of him was ever found. 
One photograph and three hastily scribbled postcards written a few days before the battle are all we have to begin to tell his life.
It is 5 am. 
The rain of the past two days, at times torrential, has eased to a thick drizzle. The earth is sodden. Water lies in pools in the pocks and tracks in the open land. It covers the bottom of the trenches. It is ankle deep. There is barely any wind. 
There is no silence. For almost 100 hours, British guns have tossed tons of high explosives and shrapnel onto German lines. Those lines are no more than 400 yards from where Lance Corporal James Airton is standing. Sitting. Leaning. Talking. Waiting.  

It is 5 am and no-one knows what is to happen next. 
Perhaps the first plan. Perhaps they will release thousands of tons of chlorine gas into the still, damp air. The ‘utility’. The ‘accessory’. Perhaps a five mile line of 60,000 men will rise as one out of the trenches to charge and slide and slip and fall in the dense clay. 
Perhaps the other plan. There are two plans. Perhaps they will not let the gas go. Perhaps just 20,000 men will do what they can along a shortened line of two miles or so. Their flanks naked to the German machine gunners. Knowing they cannot do what their orders say they must.     
It is 5 am and the biggest infantry battle in the history of Europe is perhaps an hour and a half away. Or perhaps it is not. Perhaps it will not happen at all. 
Lance Corporal James Airton,
6th King's Own Scottish Borderers
Jim and the rest of the 6th Battalion of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers have been back in the front line trenches for less than 24 hours. 

It is 5 am. Now they are in the front line. Waiting. If they are to go, theirs will be the hardest task in this unwanted battle.
Jim and his battalion hold the section of trench that cuts the road from Vermelles to Auchy Les Mines. Or what remains of them. A man foolish enough to peer over the parapet would look north east. Some 400 yards away, the German front line trench. The Madagascar Trench. 
Straight ahead, the battalion’s first obstacle and objective. ‘Mad Point’. A machine gun post that controls the Vermelles-Auchy road and stands in front of the remnants of Madagascar village, the Corons de Maroc and Corons de Pekin. Their exotic names belie their drab reality. Smashed shells of what were once rows of miners’ terraced houses. 
To their right, one of the strongest strongpoints  of the German front. The Hohenzollern Redoubt. It bulges 600 yards from the German line. Its nose no more than 250 yards from the British line. It is a fortress with innards of steel and concrete driven onto and into a low slagheap that for all its modest height dominates the low, flat, sodden land around. Its surface a bristling skin of half buried machine guns. They have an uninterrupted, 270 degree field of fire. Behind them, a rash of trenches speed ammunition and reserves to the front. No-man’s land here is “as nasty a bit of ground as any on the battlefield”.
It is 5 am and no-one knows what is to happen next. It depends on the wind. Partly on the wind. 
Gas is a gamble. A grim game. An aetherial game of chance. Gas  debilitates, demoralises and destroys. It destroys, burns and corrodes men and machines. But it can not be aimed. It is the caprice of nature that decides whether it kills, blinds or burns your own men or the enemy. The strength and direction of the wind. The only moment of human control is the moment of decision.  Whether to open the taps or not. 
It is 5 am. Jim waits. Waits for that decision and all that will follow.
Gas can not do all that artillery can. It can not uproot and cut the tangles of barbed wire that slow or halt an advancing soldier. That force each man into a high-stepping, macabre dance. That turn him into a standing target. Nor can it excavate the booby traps, the pits lined with spikes.
It is 5.40. Haig persuades himself the wind is stronger. The leaves of a poplar tree whisper in the lightest of breezes. It is, he decides, ‘satisfactory’:
“ … but what a risk I must run of gas blowing back upon our dense mass of troops” 
At the northern end of the line, next to the La Bassée canal, facing Auchy les Mines, the air is still. 
One of the men whose job it is to release the gas hesitates. Another man, a senior officer, hesitates, too. He wants to stop the release. He calls Divisional HQ. He tells General Horne:
“The wind is unfavourable and I don’t think I should release”, 
Horne is firm:
“The order is to turn on the gas”
The officer tells General Horne that the man whose job it is to turn on the tap is refusing to do it.
Hornes’ final words are curt: 

“Then shoot the bastard”.
It is 6.30 am. The noise is unbearable. However much we try we can not imagine it or anything like it today. The closest is an intense spell of sheet lightning but that is a pale, temporary imitation.
There is the smell of wet earth. Of shit and rot and death. Of burnt explosives. Of smoke and gas. 
It is 6.30 am. Whistles blow. Along the five miles of the line. Their shrill soprano cuts through the basso profundo of both sides’ bombardments . The first of 60,000 men heave themselves, their half hundredweight packs, their rifles, wire cutters, spades and other kit over the parapets and out into no-man’s-land. 
It is 6.30 am. Pipe Major Robert Mackenzie hears the whistles. He waits in the centre of the Borderers’ trench. He is 60 years old. At least 60 years old. Perhaps more. No-one knows for sure. He is a legend. He breathes deeply and blows hard into his chanter. Once, Twice. Again. The drones wake. He rises with the first men. Steps over parapet and into the open. His fingers pick out the tune. Men pass him and stride towards Mad Point. He is hit. He plays. He is hit. He plays and walks until bullet after bullet smashes his legs from under him. The German machine gunners are aiming at his pipes.  He stops. He can go no further. He is dragged back.
Pipe Major McKenzie’s wounds will kill him. He will be awarded the Victoria Cross.
The laconic battalion diary records those first moments like this:
“Battalion assaulted German trenches at MAD POINT & SE of MADAGASCAR trench at 6.30 am. The position was reached and at some points entered. Severe machine gun fire chiefly from flanks, undestroyed obstacles and uncertain effects of gas caused severe losses and prevented the attack from succeeding.”
The wire and the booby trap are holding up the men. Those behind, those in the second wave, catch up. They are bunched now, close to the wire. The German machine guns at Strong Point open up. Conan Doyle described it like this:
“Every accumulation of evil which can appall the stoutest heart was heaped upon this brigade … the gas hung thickly about the trenches, and all the troops … suffered from it … The chief cause of the slaughter, however, was the uncut wire, which held up the brigade while the German rifle and machine-gun fire shot them down in heaps.”
Some struggle back to their trenches. A handful. Nine officers remain of the 29 who began the day. Of the men, some 300 still stand of the 924 who stood-to just before dawn. Lance Corporal James Airton is not among those still standing. He is one of the 630 men killed, wounded, gassed or missing.
It begins to rain. Heavy rain.
There are no words. Or if there are, they are few.
Captain Stair Gillon, an officer of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, had these a dozen years after that morning’s slaughter. 
“It was all over in a few minutes. The wonderful product of months of zeal, energy, and patriotism was ‘knocked out’ without opportunity of doing more than set an example to posterity by their bravery.”

Friday, 16 May 2014

Are we nearly there yet ...?

Four years late - that's quite an achievement.
But that's how long overdue the Chilcot report is according to Bernard Jenkins, chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee.
And the thing that's holding it up is the only thing that matters now. The answer to the question 'why?'
We've known 'what' and 'how' for a long time. And the Chilcot panel's often idiosyncratic questioning hasn't, in all truth, added very much to either. Partly because when you read the witnesses' testimony, you find yourself marvelling at the patina that betrays years of burnishing between events and inquiry.
Two years ago, I was fretting over Chilcot. I was writing Stumbling Over Truth. As the cover helpfully tells you, 'the inside story of the sexed-up dossier, Hutton and the BBC'.
And there was the strong expectation then that Chilcot would report a few weeks after my book was due to be published on the 10th anniversary of the September dossier.
That could have been bad news. Not because it would undermine the book but because it would - might - answer the question neither I or anyone else could at that time. 'Why?'
For all the mountain range of evidence that was out there thanks to leaks and the FOI Act, no-one on the outside knew what Tony Blair and George Bush had said or written to each other in private. What, if any, secret understandings or agreements they'd come to.
And the risk to the book was that I'd made it clear that I didn't believe the evidence was there to do what many did. Call Tony Blair a "liar".
Guilty mind
I couldn't see any evidence of what lawyers call a mens rea - for the simple reason that I concluded he truly believed whatever he was saying at the time he was saying it. Even if that meant holding incompatible or even contradictory views at one and the same time.
That doesn't let the former Prime Minister off the hook, however. We know the lengths he and Downing Street went to to 'create the truth'. How those around him nipped and tucked intelligence to make it fit the policy. And how any warning - however authoritative - that he was wrong about Saddam's WMD went into the bin.
New inferences
Two years on and its hard not to make new inferences.
As reported, it's those private messages and, possibly, agreements between PM and President that's holding up Chilcot and has been for some time.
And that's the thing. The longer Chilcot is delayed - and yet again today, we're promised he'll report 'by the end of the year' aka 'not until the end of the year' - the harder it is to avoid the conclusion that those private messages tend to suggest Tony Blair's mens might have been rea after all.
That the 2002/3 exercise in 'creating the truth' wasn't just another example of the cynical and contemptuous way New Labour did its politics day in, day out for a decade. That it was something much more sinister.  
Another seven months of mandarinisation will only persuade us that Chilcot, when he finally reports, has hidden more than he's revealed.
And the test is whether he produces an answer to that question, 'why?'

Friday, 7 March 2014

What's this 'channel' thing anyway?

That decision to shift BBC3 to iPlayer is one of the most important DG Tony Hall has made.
Possibly, the most important he'll make in his time at the top of the BBC.
Why? After all, BBC3 is a niche channel - though, according to BARB's February figures, it's no small niche, outperforming Sky 1 for example.
Nor is it especially cheap - an all-up cost of around £120m. Slightly less than the cost of all Local Radio.
It's had question marks over it since its launch 11 years ago. Some were justified - should the BBC really be commissioning programmes called 'F*ck off, I'm fat/ginger/a hairy woman' many of us wondered. And what about those Eastenders repeats? Did 16-35 year olds really not watch the soap first time round on BBC1?
It was easy for the BBC's many detractors to dismiss it as Auntie's metro-yuff g-string. A 'look-at-me' come charter renewal.
So why's it such an important decision? Who cares whether yuff have to watch the shows they want on their iPads? When they want? How they want?
Pipes and stuff
It's important because it's the the first sizeable wedge the BBC has driven into the whole idea of 'channels'.
That decision a while ago to put some content on iPlayer before it went out on the 'telly' was a tentative tap on the same wedge. So was the, frankly, amazing Olympics service.
But moving a whole channel is the first big hammer blow. It won't be the last.
Tony Hall knows - and it's something the BBC has been saying to itself and to anyone who cared to listen for over two decades - that the corporation's value lies in its content, the stuff it makes, the stuff it commissions and the stuff it chooses to buy. Not in 'channels'.
Now it's true that most of us still watch our programmes live and on a 'channel'. But fewer of us and fewer of them. And the trend is in one direction only.
Who are you?
Channels made sense when there was only a handful. When we were schedulers' more or less happy prisoners. Viewers in my generation part-identified themselves by the channel their family watched most on the single TV set in their home.
Were you Blue Peter or Magpie? Grandstand or World of Sport? 
And when BBC2 came along, did you tweak your set to watch it or, like my parents, not bother because it wasn't "for people like us".
We still see vestiges of this kind of thinking now. The debate over Scandidramas - should The Bridge and The Killing have been on BBC2 or BBC4? Or those angry blasts in the TV pages during the 2012 Olympics that this or that event - usually where a Brit was heading for a medal - should have been switched to BBC1.
Yet it's hard to see what it is about Line of Duty that makes it obviously BBC2 and what it is about Shetland that makes it equally obviously BBC1. Nor where the dividing line comes between BBC2 and BBC4 commissions.
But then, these questions only matter if you believe 'channels' do.
In and out of the box
If there's anyone still alive who turns the TV onto "their" channel at six-thirty and watches it and only it 'til bedtime, they're very few in number and more likely to be my generation than younger.
As it happens, I've seen most of the BBC3 landmark programmes - Gavin and Stacey, Boosh, Good News etc etc ... but not one of them as they went out live on that channel. Nor the first time around.
The length of a programme's tail is key these days and where/when you watch is as important as you want to make it.
And we're more and more used to vertical viewing - binging on box sets. That's how I watched West Wing and Family Guy. I'm still watching House of Cards via Netflix - a box set by other means. And recorded the Scandidramas and watched them on successive days not successive weeks - a kind of home made box set. Oh, and it annoys the hell out of me that I'm having to defer to the BBC2 scheduler and wait seven days for the next episode of Line of Duty.
But that's me.
The point is, though, we all have increasingly personal viewing habits which are an increasingly poor fit with the idea of the traditional 'channel'.
The BBC3 move came earlier than Tony Hall would have liked. And under pressure to save yet another £100m or so ... which, incidentally, the move will not do.
But it's not a move he was reluctant to make in principle. Nor, if it's well managed, will it be the last.
It makes sense to tackle BBC3 first. The target audience is the one that's already most adjusted to multiple devices. The one that's most likely to be able to navigate different ways of finding the content it wants. And, of course, the one that'll grow up with those new habits as second nature.
The language, though, is limiting.
Inevitably, it's a 'channel' being downgraded to 'online'. Auntie abandoning its kids. And that leads inevitably to the fear that none of the type of content made and bought for BBC3 will now see the light of day.
Tony Hall knows that if that happens it will be a disaster. Not just for the lost talent - which is a loss of quality by other means - but because it would sink or at least delay and make more hazardous the corporation's medium-term strategy.
It's vital the new BBC3's commissioning and buying is a success and is seen to be a success - and that means holding onto the channel's identity as a fast-track to the mainstream for new talent with new ideas.
Numbers will matter too. And that's why getting iPlayer audiences measured properly and in a way that can be compared sensibly with traditional viewing is so important.
It's not impossible to foresee a time when an iPlayer like 'homepage' will be the main route into BBC programmes and content. If you've never seen the current iPlayer landing page, it's worth a visit to look at the possibilities. And, incidentally, where the 'channels' are positioned on that page.
It doesn't take much imagination to see that there are many, many more ways of bundling programmes and other content together than a handful of 'channels' none of which is as defining as some would like to argue.
And in those bundles, whether and when a programme or a series or whatever went out for the first time on TV will matter not at all.
That's where the BBC has to go. Whether it will be able to at its own pace and in its own way depends on that BBC3 wedge.
Whether it opens up the possibilities Tony Hall hopes. Or cracks the whole bloody edifice.