The First World War was about sea battles too – especially Jutland

It’s 99 years today since the great First World War clash of dreadnoughts off the coast of Jutland, the one and only time when the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet came to blows. My great uncle was there, on board HMS Orion.

So too were a number of New Zealanders, many serving aboard the battlecruiser HMS New Zealand, paid for by the Dominion as a grand – and expensive – way of subverting British and Australian thinking about military defence and the structure of Empire.

HMS New Zealand, Indefatigable class battlecruiser given by New Zealand to the Royal Navy in 1909. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

HMS New Zealand, Indefatigable class battlecruiser given by New Zealand to the Royal Navy in 1909. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

For these young men it was a dramatic day. The battle began mid-afternoon with a collision of light forces, into which the opposing battlecruisers were then drawn. HMS New Zealand was fourth in the British line, between the modern Queen Mary and the older Indefatigable. And that gave them grandstand seats for two of the biggest disasters the British suffered in the battle.

We envisage the First World War, more often than not, by its ground warfare – symbolised by the imagery of the Western Front. In truth, naval combat could deliver death to similar scale. And that was what happened at Jutland. Around 4.05 p.m. the German battlecruiser Von der Tann landed a salvo on the Indefatigable’s quarterdeck, just as the British force commander, Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty, ordered a turn towards the Germans. The Indefatigable battlecruiser failed to make the turn, trailing smoke and apparently sinking by the stern. Another salvo slammed into her fore turret. Observers on New Zealand watched in horror as their sister ship disappeared in a gush of flame and a monstrous cloud of brown smoke, topped with a 50-foot picket boat — apparently intact but upside down. When the smoke cleared only the broken forepart remained visible, canted over and sinking fast. Over a thousand men died in the cataclysm.

HMS Indefatigable sinking, seen from HMS New Zealand. LT CMDR H T DAY - Q 64302, Imperial War Museums (collection no. 3904-01). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HMS_Indefatigable_sinking.jpg#/media/File:HMS_Indefatigable_sinking.jpg

HMS Indefatigable sinking, seen from HMS New Zealand. LT CMDR H T DAY – Q 64302, Imperial War Museums (collection no. 3904-01). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HMS_Indefatigable_sinking.jpg#/media/File:HMS_Indefatigable_sinking.jpg

New Zealand almost suffered the same fate when an 11-inch shell slammed into X-turret, ‘filling the turret with thick yellow fumes’ and knocking a piece of 9-inch armour into the ‘danger space’ on the rollers. The blast was ‘felt in the centre sighting position and working chamber, but luckily no one was hurt’. Although this did not impede the turret, splinters on the roller caused problems, and the guns only fired two rounds before the crew had to clear the debris. Fortunately there was no fire – British munitions handling procedures were sloppy and there was every risk of the magazine detonating if fire took hold above.

A few minutes later, at 4.26 p.m., five shells from SMS Derfflinger and SMS Seydlitz slammed into Queen Mary, and a massive explosion tore the ship apart. Kapitan von Egidy of the Seydlitz watched aghast:

. . . When I glanced over at the enemy through the torpedo telescope, my heart jumped to my throat. There, at a distance of ten miles, a huge immovable grey column stood up against the dull blue sky. It must have been two thousand feet across and ten thousand feet high. In its lower part black masses were whirling around. At the top, like an aureole, were glowing, darting spurts of flame. Beside its base something like a torpedo boat was sliding along. A torpedo boat? No, it was number four of the enemy’s line, the Tiger, but it seemed like a tiny boat beside that immense column . . .

HMS Queen Mary blows up at Jutland, as seen from the German lines. Public domain, Wikimedia Commons.

HMS Queen Mary blows up at Jutland, as seen from the German lines. HMS Tiger is visible to the left, with her huge trail of funnel smoke, partly obscured by two ‘near miss’ shell splashes. Public domain, Wikimedia Commons.

New Zealand, next ship astern, had to swerve to avoid the wreck. As they swept past, observers saw Queen Mary’s stern rising high out of the water. Her propellers were still turning, but ‘when abreast of us, there was another explosion, after which there was nothing left of her’. Debris showered down, spattering sea and ships. A ring-bolt from the doomed battlecruiser was subsequently found on New Zealand’s deck.

A few minutes later Princess Royal was briefly shrouded in spray and smoke, and observers on the flagship Lion thought she too had been sunk. ‘Chatfield,’ Beatty said to his flag captain, ‘there seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.’ Princess Royal survived; but the lesson was clear. Ships could blow up, all too easily, in battle – something the British made a determined effort to deal with after the battle. That, of course, did not save the men who had died, all in a few minutes, in the cataclysms. Their names are published online, here.

Blue Water Kiwis cover - 450 pxI’ve covered the story of Jutland – and more – in my book Blue Water Kiwis, re-released by Intruder Books. It’s the third in a series of seven military titles of mine being reissued by Intruder, and the only one in the re-release programme on matters maritime. Although not strictly a history of the Royal New Zealand Navy, it was taken up by the service as the book marking their sixtieth anniversary that year. Blue Water Kiwis. Check it out. Now. On Kindle.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Head-hopping: how writers nail down points of view in their stories

A few years ago I was invited to a book launch in a small local bookshop, at which readings by the author from her novel were punctuated with musical interludes from a remarkably loud bongo band. This mildly surreal juxtaposition didn’t reduce the fact that the author – clearly – had complete mastery of both character voice and of points of view.

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume...

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume…

Points of view are often a challenge to beginning writers.  I’ve discussed it before, but it’s well worth discussing again. The problem is simple: a story written from the perspective of a specific character shouldn’t include details that wouldn’t be known to that character. And yet, all too often, that’s exactly what seems to happen. I don’t know why, other than to suppose that in this age of movie and TV entertainment, some authors visualise their story as if watching a movie.

Let me explain the main points of view:

  1. First person singular. The story is told from the perspective of a single individual, ‘I’. It’s a powerful technique for conveying a specific character, a unique or distinctive voice, and for showing how they see the world. Nothing can be revealed other than what the main character sees.
  2. Third person singular. Similar to first person singular, but instead of ‘I’ the author refers to the character as ‘he’ or ‘she’. It’s another powerful way of conveying a specific character. Again, nothing can be revealed other than what the character sees.
  3. Third person plural. It’s possible for an author to have multiple lead characters. Care is needed – every one has to be properly developed. Each needs their own distinctive voice. Consistency of viewpoint remains crucial: each character takes full frame when it’s their turn, and nothing should happen that the character currently narrating the story wouldn’t see. One of the best examples I’ve read is Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings.
  4. Eye of God. The author narrates what happens to the lead character or characters, but not so strictly from their viewpoint. Again, this doesn’t mean just jumping from viewpoint to viewpoint; it’s important to consistently narrate every scene from the single viewpoint of a chosen character. A good example is Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which was third person singular, but where the ‘Eye of God’, in the form of the storyteller’s voice, and occasional scenes from elsewhere, intruded from time to time. He got the balance right.

Why is ‘Eye of God’ restricted? The reason’s simple: if the author reveals things the ‘focus’ character wouldn’t know or see, it usually destroys tension, because the reader ends up knowing a lot more than the character. Sometimes that works to build tension, but only if it’s done right – if the reason for that revelation is made clear. It also has to be plausible. More often it ends up with the storyteller ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’ the reader, which is a story killer in its own right. And it always takes focus away from character – which is what all stories must be hung around.

So the PoV rule is pretty simple: keep it consistent with what you’ve chosen – and always ask: ‘Could the character who’s the current narrative focus see or know this?’ If not – well, avoid. More soon on voice.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

We are all apprentices as writers – aren’t we?

There’s no getting around the fact that writing is a learned skill – one that demands just as much work, practise and effort as becoming (say) a concert pianist. Figures that I’ve heard suggest around 10,000 hours or a million words for someone to get really good. And that, on my own experience, sounds about right.

A writer rag-tagging at Gandalf's coat-tails...

A writer rag-tagging at Gandalf’s coat-tails…

As Hemingway said, we are all apprentices. The learning curve never stops, even after you’ve mastered writing and it’s become part of your soul. But what does that really mean?

Competence and learning curves fall into four basic categories: (a) Unconscious incompetence – where the would-be writer doesn’t know enough to know what they don’t know; (b) Conscious incompetence – where the would-be writer realises just how much work is needed; (c) Conscious competence – where they have the skills, but it’s hard work to make them come together; and (d) Unconscious competence – where the author can write, really well, without really thinking.

The thing is, writing is multi-faceted. The base skill is expression – being able to put words together, to do so consistently with a reliable ‘voice’, and to have total mastery of the language.

Words become servants at point (d). But writing is about a lot more than the mechanics of word assembly there’s also competence in the subject being written about. That’s true whether the material is fiction or non-fiction. The mechanical skill of writing – of being able to put words together, have control of ‘voice’ and the rest – doesn’t diminish. But subject expertise is another matter.

When somebody who’s at point (d) in their usual subject moves into a new area, they usually drop back a notch or two. Having an ability to master words doesn’t compensate for the novelty of a new subject matter, or genre, or form of writing. And even when someone has become an expert, once again, there’s always something more to learn – something more to discover.

That’s why there is no such thing as ‘having learnt’ how to write. It’s ongoing. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

What would YOU say to aliens before the apocalypse hits us?

Efforts are under way to crowd-source a message for putative future aliens, to be uploaded to the New Horizons probe after it completes its historic mission to Pluto and (possibly) another object in the Kuiper belt.

New Horizons is the fifth object we’ve sent on a one-way journey out of the solar system, and the only one not to have a message aboard.

Artists' concept of New Horizons' encounter with Pluto, mid-2015. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Artists’ concept of New Horizons’ encounter with Pluto, mid-2015. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Its predecessors, Pioneers 10 and 11, had a plaque; and Voyagers 1 and 2 were equipped with analogue record – with stylus.

The chance of any of this actually being found by aliens is, of course, vanishingly small. None of the probes are headed to any specific star – their departure from the Sun’s neighbourhood is a by-product of the fact that they were accelerated beyond solar escape speed as a way of keeping transit times down to their targets in the outer solar system.

Still, it’s an intriguing thought to suppose that, millions of years hence, Thog the Blob from Ursa Major might happen across one of these probes and – if the messages haven’t been eroded over thousands of millennia by interstellar radiation and dust, or the soft-copy on New Horizons lost to quantum tunnelling, maybe they’ll get a bit of an insight into a long-lost species on a far distant world.

Long lost? Sure. And that brings me to the message that might be uploaded to New Horizons. You know:

Message to aliens, affixed to Pioneer 10. It included images of humans, a route map of the probe's journey out of the Solar System, and information on the spin state of hydrogen.  Public domain, NASA, from http://grin.hq.nasa.gov/ABSTRACTS/GPN-2000-001621.html

Message to aliens, affixed to Pioneer 10. It included images of humans, a route map of the probe’s journey out of the Solar System, and information on the spin state of hydrogen. Public domain, NASA, from http://grin.hq.nasa.gov/ABSTRACTS/GPN-2000-001621.html

Dear Alien. Greetings from Planet Earth. We call ourselves human, but you probably knew that already because, by the time you’ve seen this, we’ll have conquered the visible universe and made it a better place for all. Whatever problem we face – global warming, warfare, whatever – we’ll get together and work co-operatively to fix it, in a spirit of happiness and generosity, and get on with making the universe a better place for everybody who shares it. Love from Humanity.

Or, more realistically:

Dear Alien. Greetings from Planet Earth. By the time you read this, we’ll be so long gone even our cities will be mere smears of residue in the dirt. We have this delusion that we’re special, but we never stop being stupid, stupid apes. We fight each other all the time over territories – intellectual, ideological or physical – for reasons that often don’t make sense outside a narrow imperative of personal validation or other equally selfish motive. We get hung up on status, defined often by wasteful practises that produce nothing or lead to us fighting each other. We exploit and pollute every environment we go near, until it’s destroyed – and often then go and fight each other.

“We’re good at it. Our history is littered with broken environments, lost kingdoms, wars, disputes, and a litany of inhumanity to ourselves. No matter how much we call on ourselves to care, to be thoughtful, to be tolerant, we always seem to lose track of the point. And our problem now is that we’ve run out of planet to exploit, pollute and fight over, and none of us can agree on ways to fix the problem. We haven’t got long. We hope your species, whatever it is, has a better way. Love from Humanity.

Which one do you think is more likely? And what’s your thought on the way we should advertise ourselves to aliens?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Another super-short mega story writing challenge

Here’s another super-short mega story writing challenge.

Use the photo to inspire a 150-200 word super-short story – a proper one, with beginning, middle, end and punchline (all super-short stories gotta have a punchline) – and post it on your blog, with the prompt photo and a link back to this blog for others to pick up and join in the fun.

Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!

Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!

The story can be about anything, and should be suitable for a general readership, so please keep away from ‘adult’ themes. As for the picture itself – well, I took it at the south of Lake Onoke, in the southern Wairarapa, in New Zealand. It’s not too far from where James Cameron lives. Yes, that James Cameron. Are you ready? Set…

Go!

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

The tale of the Russian terrorist ship, and why you have to buy the book

Back in mid-February 1873, Auckland newspaper editor David Leckie revealed the dramatic story of a secret Russian cruiser whose crew had taken over a British warship in Auckland harbour, with the help of a ‘submarine pinnace’, and was holding the city to ransom.

David Leckie - sometimes also spelt Luckie - Photographer unknown :Portrait of David Mitchell Luckie. Ref: PA2-2596. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23114007

David Leckie – sometimes also spelt Luckie – Photographer unknown :Portrait of David Mitchell Luckie. Ref: PA2-2596. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23114007

Their agent of terror was ‘deadly water gas’ invented by ‘the late General Todtlieben’, which had rendered the crew senseless. Then the Russian terrorists had pointed the British guns at the city, taken leading citizens hostage, and ’emptied the coffers of the banks’.

It was an outrageous act of terror, and half Leckie’s readers believed him. Though anybody reading it aloud would have known they were being pranked, because apart from the silly name of the German inventor (‘Deathlove’), Leckie also dubbed his Russian terror warship (wait for it) the Kaskowiski.

His actual aim was to raise awareness of New Zealand’s vulnerability to the Russian Bear – the Bad Guy de Jour of the 1870s. The ‘Great Game’ – Britain’s tussle with Russia over Afghanistan – was afoot, and with it risk of war. New Zealand, just emerged from the ‘New Zealand Wars’, was a far-flung outpost of Empire, and feeling vulnerable. And so New Zealand’s long naval story –  a story that extended to the furthest corners of the globe – began.

I’ve covered that story – and more – in my book Blue Water Kiwis, just re-released by Intruder Books. It’s the third in a series of seven military titles of mine being reissued by Intruder, and the only one in the re-release programme on matters maritime.

New Zealand’s naval defence has always faced a weird paradox. As a small island nation, we’re not particularly vulnerable to invasion. But our over-water interests stretch far into blue waters – along our trading routes, into the regions given us to protect. Blue Water Kiwis cover - 450 pxWe first confronted the problem in the 1870s – and it’s dogged New Zealand ever since. The key issue, as always, is figuring out ways of paying for the navy needed to do the work. The historical solutions, for decades, were entwined with New Zealand’s sense of self, and of its place in the wider British Empire of the early twentieth century. And that, as much as the exciting stories of battles in the First and Second World Wars – is what Blue Water Kiwis is all about.

Blue Water Kiwis was originally published in late 2001, a couple of years after I proposed it. Although not strictly a history of the Royal New Zealand Navy, it was taken up by the service as the book marking their sixtieth anniversary that year. Blue Water Kiwis. Check it out. Now. On Kindle.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

And now Kiwis are facing a potential mega-quake and tsunami. But of course…

This week’s news that a previously unsuspected magnitude 8+ mega-quake could hit central New Zealand and then douse the place with tsunami isn’t too surprising to me. I wrote the most recent pop-sci book on our earthquakes. It was published by Penguin Random House last year.

Living On Shaky Ground 200 pxWhile I was writing the book I had a chat with a seismologist at the University of Canterbury, who pointed out that New Zealand is staring down the barrel of some fairly large tectonic guns. The big one on land is the Alpine Fault, which ruptures with 8+ intensity every few hundred years. The last big rupture was in the 1770s, meaning another is due about now – the probability of it happening before 2100 is around 92 percent.

Another risk factor is the Taupo volcano – another product of tectonic plate collision. This is one of the biggest volcanoes on the planet, and evidence is that a monster eruption about 27,000 years ago threw the world into an ice age. It’s got every potential to wreak similar havoc again – check out Piper Bayard’s awesome novel Firelands for her take on what might happen in the US when Taupo next ‘blows’ the world climate. We won’t mention New Zealand’s likely fate in that scenario…

OK, so I'm a geek. Today anyway. From the left: laptop, i7 4771 desktop, i7 860 desktop.

Me in ‘science writing’ mode. From the left: laptop, i7 4771 desktop, i7 860 desktop.

But New Zealand also faces another major tectonic challenge, the Hikurangi Trench, a subduction zone where the Pacific plate plunges under the Australian, off the coast of the North Island. My contact at Canterbury pointed out that this is the other big gun – a potential 8+ quake followed by tsunami that could wipe out the east coast of the North Island.

That’s where the new study comes in. It’s already known that the Southern Hikurangi Margin – the plate collision between Cook Strait and Cape Turnagain – is locked, meaning strains are building up. When they break, it’s going to be devastating – a quake of magnitude 8.4 – 8.7, triggering massive onshore destruction from Napier to Blenheim, followed by tsunami. Now, it seems, this region generates such quakes a couple of times a millennium. Two have been identified; one 880-800 years ago, a second 520-470 years ago.

This picture of post-quake Napier isn't well known; it is from my collection and was published for the first time in the 2006 edition of my book Quake- Hawke's Bay 1931.

This picture of post-quake Napier isn’t well known; it is from my collection and was published for the first time in the 2006 edition of my book ‘Quake- Hawke’s Bay 1931′.

Uh – yay. On the other hand, it doesn’t really change the risk factors. New Zealand shakes. The end. The issue isn’t worrying – it’s quantifying the risk, which is why work to explore past quakes is so important.

The report also highlights something for me. The discovery that a mega-thrust quake hit central New Zealand somewhere between 1495 and 1545 – seems to unravel one mystery that has long puzzled me. At a date usually put down to roughly around 1460, plus or minus, New Zealand was riven by a rapid-fire succession of great earthquakes, all thought to be over magnitude 7.5 and most over magnitude 8. They included movement on the Alpine fault, another movement in Wellington that turned Miramar into a peninsula, and another in Hawke’s Bay where a dramatic down-thrust created the Ahuriri lagoon.

Things get a bit vague when sorting out timing because the traces of past quakes are difficult to date beyond a broad range of possible dates.

The Wellington event was so huge it went down in Maori oral tradition – Haowhenua, the Land Swallower. Why swallower? That was odd, given the quake was an upthrust – but actually, it DID eat land that counted to Maori. Massive tsunami flooded the southern North Island coasts, inundating important gardens near Lake Onoke on the south of the Wairarapa. In short, swallowing the land. I was, I believe, the first one to publish that explanation, not that anybody noticed. But I digress.

The point is that the date-range for the “1460” series overlaps the date range for the newly discovered mega-thrust quake – which included tsunami. And it explains why New Zealand was, apparently, hit by so many large quakes in quick succession. Even if they were not the same event – and, seismologically, they probably weren’t – the way strains and stresses redistribute after a major quake is well known to be liable to trigger another. Is that what actually happened? Research is ongoing. We’ll see.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015