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Your Pretty Face is Going to Sell : Open Space

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On YouTube, there’s a long tail of content that pretty much guarantees the inclusion of every potential human interest. There are skate videos, makeup tutorials, and backyard surgical removals of blackheads. And yet the presentation of a lot of this content — especially when it’s trying to attract a large audience — is remarkably similar. Everywhere you look, there’s YouTube Face.

The Face is hard to miss once you first spot it: an exaggerated expression, an overreaction to a given video’s subject, typically conveying heightened states like disgust, anger, or ecstasy. The assault of a bad smell; a bite of something intensely sour; a faked orgasm; an elbow to the guts.

YouTube Face is most prominent in the preview images for videos. It surrounds whatever video you’re watching in a big grid of emotion. Here’s one, attached to an instructional video for driving stick shift:

And another, for an irate video game nerd:

And another, for a roundup of bad albums:

And yet another, a collection of PG-rated body horror:

Taken cumulatively, there’s a surreal, Lynchian quality to the images. Few things could ever be exciting enough to elicit these kinds of reactions, and no one could possibly be this expressive. So what’s wrong with these people? Were their brains tenderized?

No, worse. YouTube Face is clickbait, attaining human form.


Like nearly everything on the contemporary web, YTF is the result of a series of matryoshka-ish financial incentives. The basic economic goal of YouTube, a subsidiary of the holding company Alphabet, Inc. — formerly Google, Inc. — is to get users to stare at videos for as many waking hours  as possible, so that they can be served ads tailored to their supposed interests.

To minimize overhead costs and ensure that an enormous amount of videos are uploaded, the burden to create content is placed upon the YouTube community. As encouragement, the company offers a small percentage of its ad revenue  back to eligible users, based upon the number of views their videos get. More views, more money.

Naturally, tropes begin to form. As certain channels gain popularity, others bite their style and techniques, trying to replicate their success. Vloggers begin to incorporate bright colors; large Impact font captions; talk in the same exact weird cadence — “Hey guys! BlackheadDigger420 here, sorry I haven’t posted in a while…” — aka YouTube Voice.

As the video market saturates, various techniques lose their power, and the attention arms race escalates. Video creators seek increasingly extreme tactics, in form as well as content. YouTube stars fake murdering their friends for a prank, for example, or filming dead bodies for shock value.

At some point, a user discovered that a catchy preview image tended to trigger potential viewers’ curiosity enough that they clicked through more frequently. Most likely this notion was inspired by other forms of clickbait (in style, it seems to be a mix of ~2012 Facebook newsfeed viral garbage with generic chumbox aesthetics). Then another user discovered that including a facial reaction tended to boost views further (perhaps manipulating some kind of primal feeling of empathy or morbid curiosity in the pain of others?). Over time, view count metrics gradually pushed these facial reactions into more exaggerated expressions, making everyone look like extras in a Soundgarden music video.

The aesthetic seems to have been largely popularized by the “reaction video” genre. There’s The Fine Bros, who make videos of old people reacting to new things, and young people reacting to old things. Their ~1,500 videos have received over six billion views.

There’s also The Try Guys over on BuzzFeed Video. They are guys who try things, and then react to them. Their videos have received over one billion views.

Other popular channels outside of the reaction genre also use the aesthetic. Pewdiepie, for one:

And theneedledrop:

Perhaps strangest of all, reaction videos have spawned an odd meta-genre: people reacting to reactions:

And people reacting to reactions of reactions:

Getting attention on social media platforms requires creating content designed to perform well within their ecosystems. Everything must contort to please the almighty Algorithmic Gods. It requires some guesswork, as these algorithms exist at such an ever-increasing scale and complexity that even their creators don’t — can’tunderstand them. The Algorithm Gods work in mysterious ways.

This has odd and often unexpected effects on the physical world. Restaurants attempt to create Instagram-friendly environments with nauseatingly kitschy interior designs. Hamburger buns are glazed to make them more aesthetically appealing. Extremist political campaigns are won partially on the strength of their shitposting. Perhaps the emergence of YTF hints at one of the many ways these algorithmic forces might begin to shape our physical appearances.

We’re also witnessing tactics common to the advertising industry, especially those of late-night infomercials, being utilized autonomously by individuals. People simulate the behavior of corporate brands, while corporate brands simulate people , hiring teams of flacks to help make something like, I don’t know, fracking seem “authentic” and “cool.”

So begins the Great Brand Singularity. Corporations, humans, and machines merging in a banal orgy of commerce. The tech is currently primitive, but it’s easy to imagine scrolling through some future feed and seeing the faces of long-deceased relatives digitally grafted onto advertisements for #FappuccinoHappyHour; close friends suddenly revealed to be replicants working for foam mattress startups; augmented reality Pillsbury Doughboys stalking us on late night walks home, their soft footsteps squishing confidently along.

Given the general trajectory of things, it seems unlikely that humanity will be exterminated by a vengeful AI, as some tech luminaries predict. No — we’ll all just be rendered into one giant sentient ad for subscription cosmetic boxes.

Yikes! But what do you guys think? Let me know in the comments below, and please take a sec to like and share my article 🙂

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2285 days ago
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The Poor Life of An Apprentice Chimney Sweep - The History of Children at Work | Owlcation

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Apprenticships could be honorable agreements, but too many apprentice chimney sweeps were treated as slaves

Apprenticeships, which allowed children to be trained in a trade, and allowed businesses to have cheap labor, were informally practiced throughout history.

In Britain and other countries in Europe, legal apprenticeship agreements were being signed by the 15th century, and legal agreements for apprenticeship are still being used today in some places.

On the whole, apprenticeships have been very useful when both parties are working together. However, certain trades and certain periods in history have lent themselves to severe abuse of apprenticed children.

For apprentice chimney sweeps, the worst abuses occurred in England immediately before and during the Industrial Revolution, and during the Victorian Era, when thousands of people came to the cities seeking work. Many of them found either no work or work with wages guaranteed to keep them in poverty for the rest of their lives.

In England in the late 16th century, the problems caused by great numbers of unemployed and under-paid workers in the cities became severe. Justices were given authority over the children of poor families, and began to assign them to apprenticeships to provide them with work, food and shelter.

Abuses became much more common as the children of the poor became available through justices placing them in apprenticeships. For master chimney sweeps, these small, underfed children of powerless or absent parents were perfect for sending up chimneys. Thus, they were the apprentices chosen most often in this trade.

While other apprenticeships lasted a standard seven years, master chimney sweeps could sometimes obligate the children to an apprenticeship for several years more. As these apprenticeships were generally unsupervised once the papers were signed, the children were completely dependent on the good heart and generosity of their masters. This meant that many were basically sold into seven years or more of cruel slavery.

Smaller chimneys and more complicated flues were potential death traps for the children

After the Great Fire of London in 1666, when buildings were replaced, fire codes were also put in place. While they did help fire safety, they also complicated the configurations of chimney flues.

The buildings were sometimes four stories high, with much smaller chimney flues than were previously used. (Smaller chimneys became normal when coal came into use, because they created better draft for fires.)

This arrangement could easily mean that a chimney of 9" by 14" could extend 60 feet or more, with many corners, turns and twists to accommodate living space. The chimneys then clustered on the roof, and extended up to expel the smoke high away from the building. While London was by far the largest city in Britain, other good-sized cities throughout Britain quickly followed suit with their new construction.

Chimney flues had several twists and turns, both because they were being built around living space, and because they were often attached to other flues within the building to share a chimney opening. Combining flues into one chimney top was more frequently done after the 1664 change in the hearth tax, as it helped to reduce the number of chimney tops - if a roof had over 2 chimney tops, each top was taxed.

As the chimneys became smaller to burn coal and number of turns and corners in the flues increased, the flues gathered ash, soot and creosote much more quickly than the larger, straighter chimneys had. They also needed cleaning more often (usually 3 or 4 times per year). This was not only because chimney fires were a danger, but because the coal fumes could kill if they were allowed to build up in the houses.

Even if a chimney didn't prove too hot when an apprentice entered it to clean, the chimney flues were pitch black, claustrophobic, potentially full of suffocating soot and confusing to navigate in the dark. It was dangerous enough work, even when the master chimney sweep tried to do well by the apprentices. The children not only had to go up these tight, dark chimneys, they had to come back down them after the work was done.

Unfortunately, the turns, twists, and merges of the chimney flues behind the walls of tall buildings created a confusing, pitch black and soot-filled maze that could sometimes be deadly to a young apprentice chimney sweep trying to make it to the roof.

If the apprentice climbed the whole chimney, cleaning it from hearth to rooftop, and exited a row of chimneys, he could forget which chimney he came out of. When that happened, he could go back down the wrong one, or go down the right chimney, but make a wrong turn at some merging of the flues. Children could suffocate or burn to death by getting lost on the way down, and accidentally entering the wrong chimney flue.

A group of apprentice chimney sweeps

An increase in child apprentice chimney sweeps came from an attempt to be more humanitarian

Children were apprentice chimney sweeps throughout Europe for several hundred years, and were as common in England as any place else.

However, while abuses also occurred in other countries, the abuses related to sending children up small, long chimneys occurred mainly in London and other large cities in England and Ireland.

In other countries in Europe, and in Scotland, while some master sweeps used small apprentices for chimney cleaning, the smallest chimneys were more commonly cleaned with a lead ball and brush attached to a rope. This was not true in England and Ireland; it was unusual for a small child not to be sent up a small chimney.

In England, another great increase in the use of small children as chimney sweeps occurred after 1773. Oddly enough, the increase in this abusive trade was caused by an attempt to be more humanitarian.

At that time, an Englishman named Jonah Hanway returned from a trip to China, where he had learned that no questions were asked when new-born Chinese babies were killed by their parents. He decided to confirm for himself that the English were more compassionate. He began by investigating the workhouses.

To his horror, he found that 68 out of 76 children had died within a year in one workhouse, and 16 out of 18 children had died within a year in another. The worst, though, was that, for 14 years in a row, no children at all had survived for a year in a third workhouse.

He reported this to Parliament. As they were responsible for the safety of children in workhouses and orphanages, they ordered an investigation. The investigation found that death rates were also high in many other workhouses; in addition, the investigation found that only about 7 out of every hundred children survived for a year after being placed in an orphanage.

To mend this terrible situation, in 1773 Parliament passed an act that children couldn't be kept in a workhouse for longer than 3 weeks. Then they had to be boarded out. The effect of this act was that small children became much more available not only to chimney sweeps, but to a lot of other business owners who were looking for cheap, expendable labor.

Powerless children were made apprentice chimney sweeps

From 1773, master chimney sweeps regularly kept anywhere from 2 to 20 children, depending on how many they could use for their business. For each child, the master sweep was paid 3-4 pounds by the government when the apprenticeship agreement was signed.

Often poor parents were faced with a choice of either finding someplace to send their small children or watching them starve. In those cases, the master sweep took the child directly from the parents and paid them a few shillings. While this was also called an apprenticeship, the parents many times never saw the child again or knew if it had survived.

Homeless children were also snatched off the street by master sweepers, and pressed into apprenticeship. This practice was sanctioned by the government, based on the theory that the children were better working than being little criminals.

Most people assume that both the master and the child apprentices were always male. This wasn't the case. Many girls also climbed chimneys, and if they survived to adulthood, just as the boys did, some of them became journeymen in their teens, and eventually master sweepers, too.

The legal arrangement for apprenticeship was indentured servitude. The agreement defined the master's duties as providing the child with food, clothes, shelter and at least one bath a week, with access to church, while the master was training the child in the chimney sweep trade.

On the child's side, the agreement stated that the child gladly did what the master said to do, didn't harm the master, tell his secrets, lend his gear or waste his resources, and worked the entire time with no pay. The agreement did not include a limit on the number of hours a child worked each day.

The apprenticeship agreement also stated that the child wouldn't frequent gaming or drinking establishments. The child would receive money either by being paid a few coppers after the master determined that the child was worth it - if a master was honorable - or by begging from families who had their chimneys cleaned.

Some children were treated well by the agreement's standards, with decent food, weekly baths, an extra set of clothes and shoes, and they were taken to church regularly. Even some poor master chimney sweeps tried to treat their apprentices decently for the standards of the time. In the country and in smaller cities, they were, on the whole, treated better.

There was enough soot in London to create a "dust" business

Children were not only expected to put up with little care, but they were expected to find customers

In London and other larger cities apprentice chimney sweeps usually fared the worst, not only because the competition was keener, but because the chimneys were smaller and taller.

Unfortunately, especially in London and other larger cities, master chimney sweeps kept as many children as they could keep alive; many sweeps didn't want to spend more than would keep each child moving and earning money. Too many of the children were in rags, and seldom had shoes. To save money and to keep them small so they could climb small chimneys, they were often fed as little as possible.

The children were worked long hours, even the youngest of them, at 5 or 6 years old. (The youngest known apprentice was taken at 3 1/2 years.) Most sweepers didn't like them below the age of 6, because they were considered too weak to climb tall chimneys or work long hours, and they would "go off", or die, too easily. But taken at 6 they were small (and could be kept that way with poor feeding), strong enough to work and not nearly as likely to die.

Each child was given a blanket. The blanket was used during the day to haul soot after cleaning a chimney. The soot was valuable. It was dumped at the master chimney sweep's courtyard, sifted of lumps and sold as "dust" fertilizer to farmers.

After the blanket was filled and emptied of soot on a regular basis during the day, the child slept under it at night. Sometimes a child and his companion apprentices slept on either straw or on top of another blanket full of soot, and they normally huddled together for warmth. This was so common that it had a term, "sleeping in the black", because the child, clothes, skin and the blanket were all covered with soot.

Some children actually received the weekly bath outlined in the apprenticeship agreement. However, some were never bathed, and many followed a more common custom of 3 baths per year, at Whitsuntide (shortly after Easter), Goose Fair (early October) and Christmas.

In London, many sweeper apprentices had washed on their own in a local river, the Serpentine, until one of them drowned. Then the children were discouraged from bathing in it.

The master chimney sweep might have plenty of regular customers, or might have gone through the streets calling, "soot-o" and "sweep-o", reminding people that it was time to clean the chimney to prevent the too-common chimney fires.

If a master sweep had several apprentices, the older ones would also walk the streets calling for clients. They would do this on their own, but their call was "weep, weep". If someone hailed them for a job, they would either fetch the master's journeyman to handle the transaction, or they would do it themselves and bring the money back to the master.

Depending on their circumstances, people tended to wait as long as they could before having the chimneys cleaned, to save on the expense. For the child, this meant that when the child went up the chimney, there was too often a great deal of soot. As he scraped it above him and it came down on his head, in that small space, it could surround his head and shoulders and suffocate him.

The apprentice chimney sweeps did work that was too dangerous for anyone to do

When a master sweep was hired to do the job, the hearth fire would be put out. Then he would place a blanket across the front of the hearth. The child would take off any jacket or shoes. If the chimney was tight, the child would "buff it", or climb the chimney in the nude.

The child pulled his apprentice sweep cap over his face and hooked it under his chin. This was the only protection the child had against the great volumes of soot and any burning creosote that would fall on his face and body as he brushed and scraped the chimney above him.

The larger chimneys were about 14" square, and the smaller ones about 9" by 14". If there were bends or corners, which was normal, the child had to find a way to make it past the changes in direction within that small space. Some chimneys could even be as small as 7", and only the very smallest children were used to clean those chimney flues. The chimneys were square or rectangular, and the child could maneuver his shoulders into the corners, which allowed for crawling up some surprisingly small chimneys.

The child worked his way up the chimney, holding his soot brush in his right hand above his head, and using mainly his elbows, knees, ankles and back, like a caterpillar. He often had a metal scraper in the other hand to scrape away the hard creosote deposits that stuck to the chimney walls.

When a child first began to climb chimneys, his elbows and knees would be badly scraped with every climb and would bleed profusely(children climbed anywhere from 4 to 20 chimneys a day). While a few of the more humane master sweepers provided the children with knee and elbow pads, most solved this problem by "hardening" the child's elbows and knees. This involved standing the child next to a hot fire and scraping his scraped knees and elbows with a rough brush dipped in brine. Needless to say, it was extremely painful, and many children were either beaten or bribed when they cried and tried to get away from the brush. Some children's elbows and knees didn't harden for weeks, months or even years. Nevertheless, they received these brush and brine treatments regularly until the scraped and burned skin hardened.

Being burned by chimneys that were still hot, or by smoldering soot and creosote when a chimney fire had begun were also very common for apprentice sweeps in London. If a household waited too long to have the chimneys cleaned, then a chimney fire began, the master sweep was called to take care of it. The master sweep would then send the child up the hot chimney to clean it out, burning embers and all. Because many children burned to death this way, the master sweep would often stand on the roof with a bucket of water to dump on the child if he cried out or if flames started above him.

Chimney sweep apprentices being retrieved after suffocation

If a chimney sweep slipped, even a little, death could be the result.

There were many ways for the children to die on the job

The children also became stuck in the chimneys, and many died of suffocation from slipping and being jammed too tight to breath, or from huge deposits of soot and ash dumping on them. Whether or not the child was alive, a mason was called to open the chimney and remove him.

From their own experiences and from hearing about the deaths of other apprentices, the children were well aware of these hazards, and, especially the younger ones, were often frightened of going up into the heat and the claustrophobic dark. They would go into the chimney because they were stuffed up into it by a demanding master or journeyman. However, they would freeze once inside the chimney and wouldn't go any further. They also wouldn't come out, because they knew they would be beaten.

The master sweepers solved this problem by either lighting straw below the children who had been stuffed up the chimney, or sending another child up to prick the first child's feet with pins. The term "lighting a fire under him" is said to have come from the master sweepers lighting straw under boys in chimneys to make them start moving and cleaning upward away from the fire.

The children not only died from burns and suffocation, they died from long falls, either back down the chimney itself, or after reaching the very top. They cleaned and climbed the chimney to the very top, including the part that was sticking high up out of the roof. Once in a while, the clay chimney tops - called "pots" - were cracked or poorly fitted. The boys would climb up into them, and a bad pot would either break or fall off the roof, plunging both boy and down two, three or even four stories onto the cobblestone street or courtyard below.

The danger of the chimney flues being too much of a maze, or the child going back down the wrong flue to a fire or dead-end that they couldn't back up from have been mentioned. Usually, this happened to new children and, if they survived, they didn't need to be frightened like that many times to build a mental map of their climbs in the claustrophobic darkness.

The apprentice chimney sweeps not only had to contend with the chimneys, they had to contend with the weather

The hazards outside of the chimneys were also constant. For the most part, the ailments the children suffered as a result of their work went untreated.

They had chronic sore eyes, including some blindness, from the constant soot particles in their eyes. They had chronic respiratory illnesses, and died of those, especially when they were out in the winter months for long hours.

Their spines, arms and legs would become deformed from poor nutrition, and from spending many long hours in unnatural positions while their soft bones were still growing. Their knee joints became deformed from the long hours they spent each day with their body weight pressing their knees against the chimney walls. Their ankles were chronically swollen from the pressure they had to maintain on them while their feet were vertical against the opposite chimney walls.

Their backs not only became twisted from the scraping and unnatural positions inside the tight chimneys, but from carrying soot bags from every job back to the master's courtyard. These bags were much too heavy for small children.

The children not only used their blankets to carry soot, but they also used them as their only winter clothing. Once they were proven reliable, they were often expected to go by themselves to sweep chimneys at 5 or 6 in the morning, before households heated the chimneys for the day. With the pain they already had in their arms, legs, feet and backs, the cold was especially bad for them. "Chillblains", which is pain, blistering and itching from the cold due to reduced circulation, was a common complaint.

Around Christmastime, pain from the cold was especially troubling, because that was a very busy time of year, no matter how cold it was. Households waited longer than usual to have their chimneys cleaned, so they could do it immediately before the heavy cooking at Christmas. As a result, the children were up earlier and worked later than usual, and the chimneys were much more loaded with soot and creosote. They went from the cold outside to the tight, suffocating chimneys inside many times a day. Some of the weaker, worse-dressed children died of exposure in the coldest months.

Sir Percival Pott, commenting on apprentice chimney sweeps, 1776

" The fate of these people seems peculiarly hard...they are treated with great brutality.. they are thrust up narrow and sometimes hot chimnies, [sic] where they are bruised burned and almost suffocated; and when they get to puberty they become ... liable to a most noisome, painful and fatal disease."

If boys reached puberty, it could hold one more tragedy for them

For the boys, their treatment led to another tragedy. Coal soot found its way into the folds of skin on a boy's scrotal sac due to loose clothing and climbing in the nude. Because the soot was not washed off for months at a time over the years, many of the boys developed scrotal cancer, called "chimney sweep's cancer" about the time they entered puberty.

This was the first occupation-caused disease reported during the Industrial Revolution. Sir Percival Pott studied and reported it in 1775.

The cancer started as a small sore spot on the surface of the scrotum. If it was seen by the boy while it was small - before it became and open sore - it was the custom in London for the boy to trap it between a split stick and cut the sore spot off with a razor. If he did this early enough, it could save his life.

The sore was never seen by a doctor before it had been an open sore and was growing larger for some time. Then, before Sir Percival's discovery, the doctor thought it was venereal disease, and the boy was given mercury to treat it. (As we know today, the mercury would inhibit the boy's immune system, and the cancer would spread more quickly.)

While the open sore was sometimes removed by the doctor, by that time, it was usually too late to save the boy. It ate away the scrotal sac and thigh skin and anal area, and progressed to the abdominal cavity. The unfortunate boy who had managed to survive climbing the hot, soot-filled and tight chimneys would then die a very painful death.

The circumstances of these children were publicized, but still the abuses continued

If the children survived long enough to no longer fit into chimneys, and didn't die from the chimney sweep's cancer, they would become journeymen, and begin supervising the apprentices for the master sweeper.

Or they would be kicked out of the master chimney sweep's home with no money, deformed and covered in soot. If they were dumped into the streets, nobody was interested in hiring them, even for heavy labor, because their deformed legs, arms and backs made them look weak. So the children who weren't allowed to become journeymen or master sweepers often became petty criminals.

The circumstances of children sweep apprentices were well known and their various unhappy fates also known by the authorities. Their deaths and the court testimonies of the cruelties of the few master chimney sweeps that made it to court were publicized in the papers. However, it was still very difficult to find the support to end using children to sweep chimneys.

Gradually, court cases made it all too obvious that the master sweepers, for the most part, were not people to entrust with raising and training children. These cases included many child fatalities after they were forced up clogged or burning chimneys to clean them, or beaten to death for being too afraid to go up them.

A mechanical chimney sweeper was invented in 1802, but many people would not allow it to be used in their homes. If they had chimneys that had many corners in them, they didn't want the expense of making the corners into bends that the brush could navigate. They were also very certain that the mechanical sweeper could not do the good job that a human could.

The fact that the human who went up the chimney was a small and abused child was both known and ignored by the people who hired chimney sweeps. The only difference knowing the brutality of these children's lives seemed to make was that the children could sometimes beg a small coin, some clothes or an old pair of shoes from the mistress of the house. The begging was encourage by the masters, because it saved on clothing expenses.

Everything was, more often than not, then taken from the children. Clothing that couldn't be used was sold. (Having improper clothing castoffs given to them was where some chimney sweeps found the top hats that became a mark of their trade.)

After the invention of the mechanical sweeper, the master sweeps who stopped using children and began to use the mechanical sweepers had a difficult time staying in business. This was even though they reported that the brushes did as good a job as the children.

Even the sympathetic were not willing to let the boys stop climbing chimneys

The Irish Farmers' Journal, ever watchful for reports about climbing boys, referred to a leaflet by S. Porter of Wallbrook, entitled: An Appeal to the Humanity of the British Public. This quoted statements about deaths, burns and suffocation of six boys in 1816 and eight in 1818. One report was about a child of five years old, another about a boy who was "dug out - quite dead" from an Edinburgh flue: "the most barbarous means were used to drag him down:. This journal reported in March 1819 that the Bill to do away with the employment of climbing boys had been lost; the editor in spite of his humanity would not have recommended total abolition of climbing because he was of the opinion that some chimneys were impossible to clean by machines.

American children still had to endure being apprentice chimney sweeps

Finally, for English children, being an apprentice chimney sweep ended

The treatment of these children was gradually improved over many years through a string of Acts passed by Parliament. First, a minimum legal age for a sweep's apprentice was created, then increased. Then the number of children a master sweeper could apprentice was limited to six. Other limits were put in place as the 73 years after the invention of the mechanical sweep passed.

However, for many of the Acts, the enforcement also had to be pushed, because people, including the authorities, held on to their belief that chimneys were cleaner when they were cleaned by people.

Many advocates, such as the Earl of Shaftesbury and Dr. George Phillips, worked diligently for decades on the children's behalf. These advocates lobbied for the children, made pamphlets and also made sure that some of the many court cases for abuse and manslaughter that were brought against master sweeps who forced frightened children up hazardous chimneys were also printed in the papers. The pamphlets and publicized court cases slowly began to reduce the resistance of the public to using mechanical sweepers.

Then, in the early 1870's, several boys died in chimneys; the youngest boy was 7 years old. Finally, 12 year old George Brewster was made to climb a chimney at Fulbourn Hospital. He became stuck, and suffocated. This was the tipping point,

Lord Shaftsbury had reported the other boys' deaths to Parliament. Finally, he used George Brewster's death (and his master light sentence of six months' hard labor) to push the Chimney Sweepers Act of 1875 - and to push its proper enforcement. This act set the lower age limit for chimney sweeps at 21, and demanded the registration of all chimney sweeps with the local police. Unlike the Acts before it, this Act was properly supervised. This meant that George Brewster was the last child apprentice chimney sweep to die on the job.

While the use of small children in England was eventually stopped in 1875, it continued in other countries for many more years. The only two advantages that those children had were that they didn't clean very small chimneys, and they did not get chimney sweeper's cancer.In most other ways, they had the same problems and the same fates as the English children had endured.

Very little is known about the children who were chimney sweeps in the U.S., because black children were used in this trade. White children usually worked in the textile mills, coal mines, and other locations. Where white children were used, black children would not normally be given jobs. And because black children were chimney sweeps in the United States, very little is known about their profession and what they endured before child labor laws were enacted.

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2410 days ago
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How a Worm Gave the South a Bad Name — NOVA Next

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For more than three centuries, a plague of unshakable lethargy blanketed the American South.

It began with “ground itch,” a prickly tingling in the tender webs between the toes, which was soon followed by a dry cough. Weeks later, victims succumbed to an insatiable exhaustion and an impenetrable haziness of the mind that some called stupidity. Adults neglected their fields and children grew pale and listless. Victims developed grossly distended bellies and “angel wings”—emaciated shoulder blades accentuated by hunching. All gazed out dully from sunken sockets with a telltale “fish-eye” stare.

The culprit behind “the germ of laziness,” as the South’s affliction was sometimes called, was Necator americanus—the American murderer. Better known today as the hookworm, millions of those bloodsucking parasites lived, fed, multiplied, and died within the guts of up to 40% of populations stretching from southeastern Texas to West Virginia. Hookworms stymied development throughout the region and bred stereotypes about lazy, moronic Southerners.


The menacing hookworm

While the South eventually rid itself of hookworms, those parasites cost the region decades of development and bred widespread misconception about the people who lived there. Yet hookworm has not been defeated for good. Today, hundreds of millions of people in dozens of nations around the world suffer from hookworm infection. The South’s experience, measured in both its successes and pitfalls, can provide a rough blueprint of how to seek out and quash this “American murderer”—no matter where it is found around the world.

An Intimate Relationship

In the South, tiny enemies seem to be everywhere. Mosquitoes sneak bites, roaches creep into bedrooms, chiggers bore into tender skin around panty lines, and parasitic worms invade vulnerable guts. As a child growing up in Mississippi with a Southern historian mother who had a fondness for hookworms, I became acquainted with those bloodsuckers at an early age. Hookworm was often an unappetizing topic of conversation around the dinner table, and knowledge of those parasites shaped Nuwer household conduct.

While all the neighborhood kids ran barefoot in the summer, for example, my mother did her best to intersect my sister and me as we bee-lined for the door, ready with pair of shoes and a warning: “You’ll get worms!” Our feet were not the only appendages she shielded from infection, however; fingernails underwent weekly clippings and cleanings to eliminate a potential conduit for eggs or larvae.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, however, so despite these precautions my mother also went directly to the source, inspecting our rears for tiny, slithery bodies and our stool for traces of movement. (For the record: my sister did contract pinworms on one occasion, but to the best of my knowledge, I enjoyed a worm-free childhood.)

“Maybe I was a little more conscious of worms as a mother than a normal person,” my mom recently admitted. “But yes, I was real protective of the worm issues.”

My mother’s anti-worm antics might come across as a touch overzealous today, but as recently as the 1950s, hookworms were an intimate and ever-present threat for those living in the South. It was nearly impossible for the rural poor—the majority back then—to avoid hookworms.

Hookworms, like many other parasites, have a somewhat complex lifecycle, coming full circle in the human gut. There, a mated female lays up to 10,000 eggs per day, which are expelled into the environment via feces where they can come into contact with another hapless human victim.

Garland Brinkley, an associate professor of public health at Touro University in California, argues that hookworm disease worsened in the years following the Civil War, thanks to deteriorating conditions and economic setbacks, and that the rise of those parasites only served to slow recovery even further. Following the war, poverty and hookworms were even more closely linked. While wealthy and city-bred Southerners in the late 19th and early 20th century wore shoes and used bedpans, those of a more modest social standing often went barefoot and either used latrines or went in the woods. Many poor Southerners were also renters and did not have control over the land they lived on or the services provided there. “Your Mimi,” my mom often points out, “was raised without a toilet.”

“One quote from a landlord at the time was, ‘Just let them go in the bushes, like they’ve always done,’ ” says Margaret Humphreys, a professor of history of medicine at Duke University. “Just like today, landlords back then weren’t going to spend money on anything they didn’t have to.”

Free-ranging animals typically found on Southern farms spread the parasite-laden muck beyond the outhouse’s immediate vicinity, as did the South’s frequent torrential rains. The wriggling larvae that emerged from the eggs could remain in the soil or inch their way up blades of grass along morning dewdrops. When the larvae encountered the bare feet of a person attending to their business in the privy, or of a child playing near by, they quickly burrowed inside like a corkscrew, leaving behind an itchy sore called “ground itch” or “dew itch.”


Cartoon for "The Story of a Boy" by B. Stephany

Once inside the body, the larvae caught a ride in the victim’s bloodstream and entered into the lungs, which became irritated, triggering a dry cough. Up the windpipe the larvae went until they were swallowed back down the esophagus—finally on their way to their desired destination, the small intestine. There, they grew larger and could remain for up to five years, latched onto the gut’s soft lining with vampire-like fangs, leeching out blood.

An infection of about 100 worms meant the loss of a teaspoon of blood per day, though just 25 adult hookworms could cause iron deficiency in a child or pregnant woman. Chronic malnutrition and pellagra amplified the hookworms’ impact on many of their victims, whose diets could not support a daily depletion of iron. As the blues artist Blind Blake sang in 1929, “Hookworm in your body / And your food don’t do you no good.”

Only in the severest of cases, however, did hookworm-induced anemia actually kill victims. Instead, hookworms claimed lives indirectly by increasing the likelihood of mothers dying during childbirth or of a weakened host succumbing to diseases, from run-of-the-mill colds to more deadly maladies such as malaria or typhoid fever.

Hookworm disease’s most significant impact, however, was not in in the death toll but in years of healthy life lost. Children were especially affected by hookworms, which would sometimes prevent girls from ever menstruating or boys from hitting their growth spurt. Because iron is critical for brain function, hookworm infection could also lead to irreversible cognitive and intellectual defects. A 1926 study of Alabama school children found that the greater the number of worms that students harbored, the lower their IQ. As those authors wrote: “One has the impression that the [hookworm-infected] child is living in another, entirely separate world, and is only remotely in contact with the everyday world about him.”

“Neglected tropical diseases like hookworm not only occur in settings of poverty, but they also cause poverty,” says Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “Hookworms were definitely a major factor in holding back progress in the American South.”

Exposing a Killer’s Identity

Hookworms aren’t endemic to the Americas, likely having arrived in the U.S. in the 17th century, unwittingly imported with the Atlantic slave trade. Until the early 20th century, however, most people in the U.S. did not know what a hookworm was, much less that millions of those parasites inhabited the guts of people throughout the South. Hookworm symptoms were written off as simply being indicative of Southerners’ backward character.

“You had an entire class of Southern society—including whites, blacks, and Native Americans—that was looked upon as shiftless, lazy good-for-nothings who can’t do a day’s work,” my mom explained to me. “Hookworms tainted the nation’s picture of what a Southerner looked and acted like.”

Hookworm infections stigmatized the South. Find out how in this episode of NOVA’s

Gross Science


In 1902, Charles W. Stiles, a medical zoologist from New York, finally dragged the hookworm out of hiding. Stiles had been tasked by the Department of Agriculture to help farmers keep their animals healthy, but he became fascinated with solving the riddle of the South’s stunted, exhausted workers. He began collecting samples and soon identified the tiny culprit behind the workers’ debilities. “He was one of these people who becomes obsessed with something that few others acknowledge or recognize,” says John Ettling, president of the State University of New York College at Plattsburgh and author of The Germ of Laziness. “He wouldn’t let it go.”

Stiles was convinced that ridding the South of hookworms would make the region more productive, but local doctors would not listen, dismissing him as arrogant or pointing out that his expertise was in animals, not people. “He was an interesting guy, but testy and hard to like,” Ettling says. “He didn’t suffer fools.”

Word of Stiles and his discovery, however, soon reached John D. Rockefeller, who was actively looking for a certain type of philanthropy project. Hookworms fit the bill. “Rockefeller didn’t want to put money into things that would bring the American capital system into question, like income inequality,” Ettling says. “Health, on the other hand, is not controversial: no one wants their kids growing up sick.”

Southerners, however, were not on board in the beginning. The idea of hookworms—parasites that live within the body and are contracted by direct contact with feces—was unseemly, and the South, unsurprisingly, wanted no association with such a disease. Indeed, some Southerners took the suggestion of hookworms as a personal affront, Ettling says, demanding, “Where was the hookworm when it took three Yankees to take out one Rebel boy in the War?” Others proclaimed that Rockefeller was trying to further humiliate the South and that his money wasn’t wanted.

Nevertheless, the national press took up the story, calling hookworm the “germ of laziness” and writing that now the country finally had an explanation for why Southerners are so loath to work. “Of course, that did not play well in the South,” Ettling says. “From the after effects of the Civil War, Southerners were already pretty touchy about this stuff.”

Road to Recovery

The South, however, was in dire need of support. Unlike in the North, Southern state public health agencies almost completely lacked funds or personnel. In 1909, Rockefeller donated $1 million to create the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission for the Eradication of Hookworm Disease, appointing Wickliffe Rose, a professor of philosophy in Nashville (and, crucially, a Southerner) to run the organization. Rose began an anti-hookworm propaganda campaign across the South and sent young doctors straight out of medical school to visit towns throughout the region. “They were like itinerant evangelists riding across the South, carrying this medicine and message,” Ettling says.

In the weeks prior to a doctor’s visit, Rose and his colleagues prepped the town with announcements and newspaper articles and also targeted children, who they realized could be an effective means of convincing parents to pay attention. They began an educational campaign in schools, where teachers collected stool samples from their pupils for testing. In his memoir, historian Thomas D. Clark recalls such an experience, when the hookworm campaign reached his Mississippi town in 1912. “The Winston County Journal ran a bloodcurdling illustration of a greatly enlarged female hookworm that resembled a diamondback rattlesnake more than a worm,” he writes. “I became so frightened at the prospect [of being tested] that I was constipated for a week.” The entire student body of some rural, one-room schoolhouses turned up positive for hookworm infection—although Clark was relieved to learn that he was not one of them.

Arriving on horseback with microscope in tow, the doctors set up makeshift clinics—sometimes in communities so isolated that the residents still spoke Elizabethan English. The townspeople often treated this as an event. People showed up with potato salad and fried chicken to make a day of it, and some asked if they could be married in the hookworm tent. All sat and listened to the doctor’s presentations about hookworms—usually carried out on a Saturday or Sunday so no one would have to miss work—and to his instructions about how to build a proper outhouse to avoid re-infection. “The doctors couldn’t give the townspeople indoor plumbing and running water, but they could teach them how to construct what they called sanitary privies,” Ettling says. “And they couldn’t buy everyone shoes, but they could tell people to be careful about where they walk.”

Those who tested positive were sent home with Epsom salt and thymol—frequently their first encounter with pharmaceuticals—and strict instructions for how to take them. If combined with alcohol or taken all at once, the medications could be lethal. As Stiles wrote in a 1909 article in the journal Public Health Reports: “The patient and the patient’s family should be carefully warned not to permit the patient under any circumstances to have on the Sunday during which the treatment is given any food or drink containing alcohol, fats or oil.” In one case, Stiles added, a patient suffered severe thymol poisoning after taking “a copious drink of milk” shortly after the medicine was administered. Later, that chemical was replaced by carbon tetrachloride—although that was hardly an improvement in terms of patient safety. “Carbon tetrachloride’s lethal stuff,” Ettling says. “I used to use it to clean the keys of my typewriter.”


Doctors set up hookworm clinics to conduct tests and teach townspeople about proper sanitation.

While the campaign was revolutionary in that it established the South’s first network of public health clinics, it lasted just five years and did not come close to eradicating hookworm. “The Rockefellers wanted to say, ‘We came, we saw, we conquered,’ but they didn’t,” Humphreys says. That doesn’t mean the campaign was a complete failure, however. It succeeded, Humphreys says, in that it “hit Southern communities over the head with the fact that, yes, they did have hookworm.”

Indeed, the battle against hookworms would rage on for decades. In 1942, for example, Humphrey’s grandfather arrived in east Tennessee to build a power plant and found the workers to be so weak from hookworm infection and malnutrition that they’d nearly fall over if they tried to push a wheelbarrow. He had to bring workers down from Pennsylvania to get the job done. Likewise, in 1947, “when a baseball commenter referred to Southern players as coming from the ‘Hookworm Belt,’ the phrase needed no explanation,” Humphreys writes in the journal Neglected Diseases.

By 1985, hookworm had all but disappeared in the South, thanks to a combination of factors: a rise in cheap but relatively healthy food, an increase in indoor plumbing, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, a push toward urbanization, the end of sharecropping following World War II, and the advent of agricultural mechanization. “The reason hookworm is not a scourge today is because people live in cities, wear shoes, eat better than they did 110 years ago, and have indoor plumbing,” Ettling says. “Those factors, more than anything else, are responsible for the fact that hookworm is no longer a major problem in this country.”

Some, including Ettling, Humphreys, and Hotez, still believe that holdout pockets of hookworm infection may still exist in the South today, most likely confined to the extreme poor, those based in the deep backwoods, or immigrant communities living in labor camps. By and large, however, hookworms have been driven out of this country.

But the South continues to lag behind the rest of the nation economically, with seven out of the 10 poorest states in the U.S. located there. And while stereotypes are fading, many outside of the region continue to look down on it. “When I told my family I was moving to Houston, it was like I was leaving for a leper community—they wanted to have a funeral for me,” Hotez says. “My in-laws certainly have perceptions about this being a backwards place, not realizing that some of the most sophisticated universities in the world are located in the South.”

How much credit, if any, hookworms can take for those lingering economic challenges and misconceptions, however, is nearly impossible to measure, although some have tried. Hoyt Bleakley, an associate professor of economics at the University of Michigan, used early to mid-20th century census data and records from the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission to compare educational and economic gains in places where hookworm eradication did and did not take place. He found an increase in school attendance and literacy in relation to hookworm reduction and also discovered that those effects seemed to extend into adulthood, with better-educated children growing up to be higher-earning adults. This suggests, Bleakley writes, “that hookworm played a major role in the South’s lagging behind the rest of the country.”

“If you compare places in the South with the worst versus the least hookworm problem, you’re talking differences in income of maybe 25%,” he says. “There are lots of reasons why the South had a different developmental path than the rest of the country, and while disease is not the whole story, it was certainly part of it.”

Still on the Loose

In other parts of the world, hookworm disease is far from a fading memory. It occurs in any warm, humid place that has the right type of sandy, loamy soil and—most importantly—extreme poverty. An estimated 477 million people—including 44 million pregnant women—throughout South and Central America, Africa, and South and Southeast Asia carry hookworms today. Some of the highest rates of infection occur in Sierra Leone, Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, Nigeria, Ethiopia, India, Venezuela, and Indonesia. But hookworm is also present in less obvious places, including China and Brazil, where the situation more closely resembles that found in the U.S. a century ago: part of the population lives in developed, modern cities, while the rest still struggles with rural poverty and suffers from the maladies that accompany it, including hookworm.

Hookworms, however, receive little attention, as countries, non-governmental organizations and researchers tend to home in on diseases such as malaria and HIV. As Hotez points out: “Everyone’s so focused on the 20,000 Ebola cases, but everyone in the Ebola-affected countries has hookworm and schistosomiasis.”

To raise awareness about hookworm disease’s true toll, Hotez and a colleague created a “worm index”—a measure of a country’s level of development compared to its parasitic worm burden (including hookworm and two other intestinal parasites, schistosomiasis and lymphatic filariasis). Focusing on the world’s 25 most populous nations, they compiled World Health Organization data of the number of school-aged children that required deworming treatments compared to the country’s human development index—a measure that takes into account factors such as life expectancy, per capita income and education. As they recently reported in the journal PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases, the more infested a country is with parasitic worms, the lower its level of development. “It doesn’t prove cause and effect, but it does go both ways: low development promotes worms, and worms promote low development,” Hotez says. “They reinforce each other.”

As the South’s example shows, the solution is not as simple as handing out deworming pills to affected communities. Indeed, a treatment package Hotez helped to develop, which includes anti-hookworm medication, has already been deployed by USAID to more than 450 million people. Yet the prevalence of hookworm disease has declined globally by just 5% since 1990. The problem is that, although hookworms are easily purged from the body, reinfection quickly occurs if the sources of the problem—poverty and poor sanitation—are not addressed.

Lacking the ability to lift nations and communities out of poverty, however, Hotez and his colleagues are devising an alternative approach: a hookworm vaccine. “The key question is what to do in countries without aggressive economic reforms in their near future,” Hotez says. “That’s why we’re developing this vaccine.”

The recombinant protein-based vaccine induces an antibody response to the blood-feeding apparatus of the worm. As the hookworm feeds, it takes up those lethal antibodies, which eventually kill it. Having proven the vaccine’s efficacy in animal experiments, Hotez and his colleagues have moved on to tests with humans. In Washington, D.C., they are giving volunteers different doses of vaccine and then infecting them with hookworms to see how they fare. In addition to those tests, phase I clinical trials are also underway in Brazil and Gabon, where researchers are vaccinating volunteers and comparing rates of infection to others who received an unrelated vaccine, such as hepatitis B. If the vaccine is successful and the researchers can find a way to cheaply produce and distribute it, it could spare millions from the germ of laziness.

“The fact that hookworm is still such a major global health threat is something that people largely don’t know,” Hotez says. “It’s time to realize that anemia caused by hookworms and other intestinal worms is an important but unrecognized part of the story of global health.”

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Sleep Walking into a War


The Great Cyber War: Part 1

Russian rioters handcuffed by police, Tallinn, Estonia 2007. Photo: STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

We are 10 years into a war. A war most people don’t realise is happening, and which our governments are only just beginning to see. This is the Great Cyber War.

If this was a conventional war, by now your street would have been bombed, friends would have been killed at the Front, and food would be running short. But this is a new war, a hybrid war, an information war. So instead, you are confused. Whenever you think you are sure of something, someone else will either counter it with an alternative truth, or will disagree with you so strongly that you wonder if your take on reality is correct. Our houses are still standing but our perception lies in ruins.

The Great Cyber War started in 2007, and developed into two fronts. The Eastern Front began when Russia cyber-attacked Estonia, and the Western Front when Robert Mercer and Cambridge Analytica used social media to manipulate the Brexit Referendum, and then, alongside Russia, the Trump election. Along the way a smaller South Eastern Front opened up when kids in Macedonia realized they could cash in on the chaos. Other countries and dictators are also carving out their bits of the action, but the main war is Russia in the East, and Mercer in the West. Through highly targeted uses of Facebook and Twitter to disseminate fake stories, these forces have been working to undermine the democratic and open world order that rose from the ashes of the Second World War. In its place they seek to create a state of chaos, uninhibited capitalism, authoritarianism, and nationalism.

This is the story of the Great Cyber War. In writing about it I link to articles that go into much more detail about each part of the story. If you want to understand what’s happening right now, you have to read a lot and connect the dots. What should we make of Brexit and Trump when it’s now clear they were the prefered outcomes of the Russian intelligence services, and a coterie of secretive billionaires?

Traditionally, war is a noisy thing. Bombs and guns are loud, and tanks and soldiers are pretty obvious wherever they go. When Hitler started to invade Germany’s neighbours, whether they surrendered or fought, in the end either columns of soldiers and tanks rolled noisily along the roads, or planes dropped bombs and the armies made a lot of noise. Wars cause damage. There is no doubt about war; people die, cities get destroyed. It is an ugly, noisy, violent thing.

But people slept through the beginning of the Great Cyber War. It made no noise. No one was killed. Cities remained intact. Most people didn’t even realise the Great Cyber War was happening, even when it was happening to them. It began quietly in a small country in North East Europe a decade ago.


In 2007, Prime Minister Andrus Ansip of Estonia decided he would move the Bronze Soldier — a statue of the fallen Russian soldier that stood in the middle of his country’s capital, Tallinn. On the surface, this was a reasonable thing to do. Estonia had been occupied by Russia and Stalin transported Estonians to gulags in Siberia as part of a plan to suppress the Estonian language and culture.

The Medieval Old Town of Tallinn, Estonia. Photo: DEA/De Agostini/Getty Images

But Ansip was also a politician, and the Bronze Soldier was a touch-paper. Estonians, still angry about how they had been treated by Russia, wanted the statue out of the centre of their Capital. Why should they celebrate the heroes of a war that had left their country occupied and brutalised? But for Russians, the removal of the Bronze Soldier was yet another affront, a reminder that since the end of Communism they had been relegated to second-class citizens. Arguably the whole thing was handled badly, but unrest was also provoked in a way that would now be familiar to us, but then was a mystery.

Bronze Soldier Riots, Tallinn, Estonia 2007. Photo: STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

On the night work began to move the statue, a small number of police encircled it as it was excavated to be moved to a cemetery on the edge of town. Protests turned to riots, and Tallinn fell into chaos for the night. Mysteriously, Russians across Tallinn were receiving text messages encouraging them to take to the streets. Back then, before we knew what we now know, it didn’t occur to anyone to wonder where these messages came from. At the same time, Nashi, a “youth NGO” sponsored by Putin’s Kremlin, formed violent protests outside the Estonian Embassy in Moscow, and the Estonian Ambassador was attacked as she left the building. The riots were accompanied by a serious and coordinated cyber attack against government websites, banks, and the media. Estonia considered it an act of war, and contacted NATO.

Bronze Soldier Riots, Tallinn, Estonia 2007. Photo: STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

This was not the sort of military attack NATO was set up to repel; there were no tanks, no soldiers, no planes, no bombs. It was not grounds to trigger Article 5. Discussion developed about whether this constituted an attack, or act of war, and these led to the NATO cyber defence centre being established in Estonia, to monitor the situation and plan for future attacks.


In 2008, what appeared to be an anomaly with Estonia was repeated in Georgia. This time the cyber attacks came alongside actual military attacks. Whilst Russia denied sending their army to attack Georgia, in a move that was to set a precedent later in Ukraine, they argued that soldiers had been volunteering, and that Russia itself had only sent in Peace Keepers. This early example of hybrid warfare, mixing apparent mercenaries, cyber attacks, and military intervention legitimised under the guise of protection and peace keeping, destabilised Akbhazia and South Ossetia, and undermined Georgia, including preventing it from joining NATO. This left the area in what came to be called a “frozen conflict,” an engineered situation that prevents a region from joining organisations like NATO, thwarting progress.

One reason Estonia had been attacked back in 2007, three years after joining the EU, was because it was doing too well. Russia could not afford other satellite countries thinking that leaving Russia’s orbit, and joining Europe and NATO, would lead to stability, wealth, and democracy, as Estonia’s incredible success since 1991 had shown. Such a pattern might lead to countries still under Russia’s sway to face West and pull out of Russia’s orbit. Indeed, such successes just over the border might even lead to unrest within Russia itself, as street protests from 2011 were beginning to show.

Estonia and Belarus had both started their journey at the same time, after the fall of Communism. One had embraced capitalism, democracy, and modernity with full vigour, while the other embraced old-style Communist dictatorship with equal drive. One had joined NATO and the EU, firmly turning away from Russia, whilst the other had been shunned by the world, and remained closely tied to Russia. As Wired suggested, this provided an A-B test for the two routes for a post-Soviet country. The comparison between the two states paints a picture that contradicts Putin’s message to his people, and to the satellite states Russia still tried to control. Escaping Russia had led Estonia to take off and fly, whilst Belarus had stagnated. Putin needed countries like Estonia to be less successful, or even better to fail.

Putin’s grip on power relied on the Russian people believing in the social contract he’d propagated, that they give up their freedom in return for Putin making Russia stable and successful. His argument was that if Russia tried to become a Western style democracy it would collapse into chaos, as it had done after the fall of Communism.

Russia could not directly invade countries like Estonia, and risk taking on NATO; Russia has an economy the size of Italy, and until recently a dilapidated military, so direct confrontation wasn’t an option. So they devised a way to undermine countries, chipping away at them: Hybrid Warfare.


This experimentation with hybrid warfare, and that fear of Russian satellites turning to the West, in particular joining the EU and NATO, came to a head in 2014 when the Ukrainian people removed the Kremlin-backed leader, the deeply corrupt Viktor Yanukovych (who paid out $2 billion in bribes during his four years in office). This posed a risk both of Ukraine leaving the grips of Russia and becoming a success like its neighbour Poland, and of inspiring a similar rebellion against Putin himself. Hybrid warfare and the creation of “frozen conflicts” came of age with Ukraine.

The war in Ukraine was not just a military intervention, but the result of a coordinated information war. There was so much misinformation it is easy to forget this fact, which is the point of bamboozling people with contradictory stories and facts. Igor Strelkov, the agent sent into the Donetsk, the Eastern region of Ukraine, by Russia to foment dissent, later turned against Putin, and admitted his role. In interviews, he later said:

“Donetsk did not fight and was not preparing to…life was absolutely peaceful there, before we left Sloviansk, the Ukrainian side did not prepare to assault Donetsk, they estimated that it would return to them peacefully. No-one wanted to make war at first… but in April and May [of 2014] everything was building up, and the rebellion area was expanding. We were gradually taking control of populated areas of the Donetsk Republic.”

The campaign was directed by Putin’s strategist, Vladislav Surkov, the architect of Putin’s Russia, and of the strategy of sowing chaos and confusion that has developed into Russia’s main weapon. Alongside the military action, Ukraine also suffered then, and has continued to suffer, massive cyber attacks. Their banks, transport systems, energy grid, and more have been hit in the years after the war was started. One attack cut power to over 250,000 people, prompting Wired Magazine to suggest Ukraine had become “Russia’s test lab for cyber warfare.

Maidan Square, Kiev. Photo: NurPhoto/Corbis HIstorical/Getty Images

By now, the Great Cyber War was well established. The war had started in 2007 in Estonia, and now peaked in 2014 with a full-scale military operation in Ukraine, leading to the shooting down of a passenger airline by Russian army missiles, and the seizing of Crimea, an island off Ukraine’s Southern coast with a population similar to the European country of Latvia. It was the first time a country had taken land from another country by force since the Second World War.

Now at this point you may think I am wrong, or this didn’t happen, or it didn’t happen like that. You may question whether the MH17 was shot down by Russia, or may point out that there was a referendum in Crimea, and the people voted to leave Ukraine. You may also argue any number of conspiracy theories about the war in Ukraine.

You have been info-bombed.

Around the Ukraine war, vast amounts of misinformation, false propaganda, and conspiracies were churned out by Russia, as part of their Hybrid War. This was a system already set up years back, based on Soviet and KGB practices, and honed for the modern era in Estonia and Georgia.

A recent report published by NATO, and authored mainly by Estonian officials, looks back at what happened, and is happening in Ukraine. It concluded that:

“Russian information operations skilfully target a wide range of audiences with different beliefs and convictions. The anti-Ukrainian approach relies on a variety of stylistic forms and nuances. It can take on the form of sensationalism and blaming… or use a more restrained approach. In addition to the content of the messages, Russian technically ensures that certain messages reach specific audiences and others do not.”

They include the recommendation that we must stop taking Russia seriously as an exporter of “alternative opinions,” because it is a country where there is no democracy or freedom of speech, and therefore it is able to propagate lies unrestrained and unchallenged.

As an example, the BBC reported in November 2017 about the St Petersburg “Internet Research Agency,” the Kremlin-backed troll factory, being involved with fake videos being produced to fan the flames of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine:

“The Russian Liberation Movement videos were distributed through seven fake accounts on the Russian social network VK. The accounts used false names and photographs of random people as profile pictures. The accounts were opened just a few days before the material appeared and were largely reposting entertainment content in an effort to look ‘real.’

BBC Russian also found that a social media account sharing the material was computer generated and belonged to a botnet--a large controlled network of social media accounts.”

A mainstay of Information Warfare is that for every true story or fact, numerous other contradictory stories are pushed out. It is immaterial whether they are believable, or believed, vaguely true or total fantasy. The aim is to bury the truth in a messy pile of crap, so nobody can work out what is true at all. We shouldn’t be surprised, as this method is no secret; it’s called the Gerasimov Doctrine and was written up in 2013 by the Russian General, Valery Gerasimov, in a report. He explained:

“The very ‘rules of war’ have changed. The role of non-military means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness. … All this is supplemented by military means of a concealed character.”

On Twitter, Putin opponent and famous chess player Garry Kasparov explained it thus:

“The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.”

We end up wasting time arguing about which story or fact is true or not, rather than addressing any core issues. That is precisely the intention of those bombarding us with conflicting facts. We are increasingly distracted by falling down rabbit holes of argument about what did or didn’t happen, all of which is designed to distract us from what is actually happening. Surkov and Gerasimov have told us this, but they are so good at it that they can explain to us in detail that they are about to con us, and still con us despite that.

And so Russia managed to get away with invading Ukraine. Putin later proudly admitted that he had in fact invaded Ukraine and seized Crimea, despite denying previously that his “little green men” and disruptive tourists were Russian soldiers. Lying to the world, then admitting to that lie, and still getting away with it is as much a reflection of his audacity as of our stupidity.

By now you’d have thought people would have noticed something was going on. If this Great Cyber War had been a conventional war, by now we’d all have been mobilised. Three countries had been attacked, a civilian airliner had been shot down, part of Ukraine had been taken by force. The thing that connected all this was Russian information and cyber warfare. We were all lost in arguing about who shot the plane down, whether Crimea chose to join Russia or was invaded, whether the CIA had been behind the protests in Kiev, whether the Russians in Eastern Ukraine were soldiers or tourists. And all the while we were distracted by the mad propaganda stories spreading over social media. We were distracted by the white noise from the simple reality that Russia had invaded Ukraine, seized Crimea by force, and shot down a passenger plane.

Some voices were trying to shout through the noise, but they were not the headlines, and anything they posted online was attacked by pro-Russian comments, which we now know were coming either from Russian “social media factories,” or from Russian bots, which automatically post again and again to swamp the other real comments.

Meanwhile, Russia stepped into a new arena, backing Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad. A popular rebellion against him threatened to remove a Russian ally from the Middle East. The ensuing war also offered Russia a chance to show its military might in full public view, and position itself as a relevant player in world affairs. It also triggered an event that was to rock Europe.

The Russian-backed war in Syria led to a humanitarian crisis that slammed into Europe, unsettling it to its very core. The flood of refugees challenged the liberal order in Europe, and cornered some of its leading politicians.

Through all this chaos we did not notice the Great Cyber War, but all of this was the Great Cyber War. These were all connected events, battles of the same war, parts of the same plan.

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Kim Jong Un’s North Korea: Life inside the totalitarian state

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“In North Korea, life only gets better if the state helps you. But these days, the state doesn’t help. We’re on our own.”

— The bride, now 23, from Hyesan. Escaped from North Korea in May 2017

When Kim Jong Un became the leader of North Korea almost six years ago, many North Koreans thought that their lives were going to improve. He offered the hope of generational change in the world’s longest-running communist dynasty. After all, he was so young. A millennial. Someone with experience of the outside world.

But the “Great Successor,” as he is called by the regime, has turned out to be every bit as brutal as his father and grandfather before him. Even as he has allowed greater economic freedom, he has tried to seal the country off more than ever, tightening security along the border with China and stepping up the punishments for those who dare to try to cross it. And at home, freedom of speech, and of thought, is still a mirage.

In six months of interviews in South Korea and Thailand, The Washington Post talked with more than 25 North Koreans from different walks of life who lived in Kim Jong Un’s North Korea and managed to escape from it. In barbecue restaurants, cramped apartments and hotel rooms, these refugees provided the fullest account to date of daily life inside North Korea and how it has changed, and how it hasn’t, since Kim took over from his father, Kim Jong Il, at the end of 2011. Many are from the northern parts of the country that border China — the part of North Korea where life is toughest, and where knowledge about the outside world just across the river is most widespread — and are from the relatively small segment of the population that is prepared to take the risks involved in trying to escape.

Some parts of their stories cannot be independently verified because of the secretive nature of the regime, and their names have been withheld to protect their family members still in North Korea. They were introduced to The Post by groups that help North Korean escapees, including No Chain for North Korea, Woorion and Liberty in North Korea.

But in talking about their personal experiences, including torture and the culture of surveillance, they recounted the hardships of daily life under Kim Jong Un’s regime. They paint a picture of a once-communist state that has all but broken down, its state-directed economy at a standstill. Today, North Koreans are making their own way, earning money in an entrepreneurial and often illegal fashion. There are only a few problems in North Korea these days that money can’t solve.

As life inside North Korea is changing, so too are people’s reasons for escaping.

Increasingly, North Koreans are not fleeing their totalitarian state because they are hungry, as they did during the 15 or so years following the outbreak of a devastating famine in the mid-1990s. Now, they are leaving because they are disillusioned.

Market activity is exploding, and with that comes a flow of information, whether as chitchat from traders who cross into China or as soap operas loaded on USB sticks. And this leads many North Koreans to dream in a way they hadn’t before.

Some are leaving North Korea because they want their children to get a better education. Some are leaving because their dreams of success and riches in the North Korean system are being thwarted. And some are leaving because they want to be able to speak their minds.

“Standing at the forefront of the Korean revolution is Kim Jong Un, great successor to the revolutionary cause of Juche [self reliance ideology] and outstanding leader of our party, army and people.”

Korean Central News Agency — Dec. 19, 2011

I could see how young he was, and I hoped that maybe things were going to get better. We were given some rations through our neighborhood association — we even got meat and fish — at the time he took over.

I remember how fat he was. He had a very fat face like a pig.

As the regime started preparing for Kim’s succession, it put out a song that everyone in the country was made to learn, called “Footsteps.” The idea was that Kim was following in the footsteps of his father and would lead the country into a glorious future.

We heard the song “Footsteps” and we were told to memorize it so [we] knew that he was going to be the leader after Kim Jong Il. We were told how great he was, that he could ride a horse when he was 5 years old and shoot a gun when he was 3. Of course we didn’t believe these things, but if you laughed or said anything, you’d be killed.

I was in my second year at the university when this person was introduced to us as our new leader. I thought it was a joke. Among my closest friends, we were calling him a piece of s---. Everyone thinks this, but you can only say it to your closest friends or to your parents if you know that they agree.

I created some kind of fantasy in my mind about Kim Jong Un. Because he was so young, I thought he was going to open North Korea’s doors, but after he took power and I lived three years under him, life became harder.

In theory, North Korea is a bastion of socialism, a country where the state provides everything, including housing, health care, education and jobs. In reality, the state economy barely operates anymore. People work in factories and fields, but there is little for them to do, and they are paid almost nothing. A vibrant private economy has sprung up out of necessity, one where people find ways to make money on their own, whether through selling homemade tofu or dealing drugs, through smuggling small DVD players with screens called “notels” over the border or extracting bribes.

North Korea technically has a centrally planned economy, but now people’s lives revolve around the market. No one expects the government to provide things anymore. Everyone has to find their own way to survive.

I had to drop out of teachers college when I was 19 because my father became ill so I needed to work. I started doing people’s hair at my house. All the women wanted perms. I charged 30 [Chinese] yuan for a regular perm or 50 yuan for a perm with better products. But it was still hard to make money. [Thirty yuan is about $4.50.]

We lived in the city center, but we rented some land in the foothills of the mountains and grew corn there. During planting and harvest season, we would wake up at 4 a.m. and walk three hours to reach the farmland. We’d take a little break for lunch or a snack, then work until 8 p.m. before walking home again. Doing the weeding was the hardest because we had to get rid of them by hand. And we’d buy beans from the market and make tofu that we’d sell from our house. Our profit was less than 5,000 won [60 cents at the black market rate] a day. But because the bean price fluctuates, sometimes we were left with nothing at all.

North Koreans first learned how to be entrepreneurs during the famine, when they had to make money to survive. While men had to continue to show up for work in dormant factories, women would turn corn into noodles and keep a little for themselves but sell the rest so they could buy more corn for the following day. Homeless children would steal manhole covers to sell as scrap metal. Markets began to appear and took hold. North Koreans used to joke you could buy everything there except cats’ horns.

These days, you can probably buy cats’ horns, too.

I had an aunt in Pyongyang who sold beans in the market there. I would buy what she needed from various farmers and get it to her. I’d pay people to pack up the beans into sacks, pay porters to take them to the station, get them onto the train. You have to smooth the way with money. My uncle is in the military, so his position provided protection for my aunt’s business. Of course, my aunt was the main earner in the house. It’s the women who can really make money in North Korea.

Tens of thousands of North Koreans now work outside the country, in lumber yards and garment factories and on construction sites, in China, Russia and other countries, earning foreign currency. Generally, two-thirds of their pay goes to the regime, and they’re allowed to keep the rest.

I wanted to earn money for my family and buy a house, so I paid $100 to bribe my way into an overseas construction job. I was sent to St. Petersburg. We lived at the construction site and would work from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., or sometimes until midnight in the summer, then we’d go back to our dormitory to eat. We worked seven days a week, but we could finish early on Sundays — 7 p.m. — and that was nice. My whole purpose for being there was to make lots of money and go home proud of my achievement. I still remember the first time I got paid. It was 1,000 rubles. When I finished work at 10 p.m., I went to the store and saw that a bottle of beer was 27 rubles. I thought, wow I’m rich.

As the economy and the rules that govern it change, there are more and more gray areas that can be exploited. That means that illegal trade and activity have blossomed, too.

I did so many things that I wasn’t supposed to do. I worked as a broker transferring money and connecting people in North Korea with people in South Korea through phone calls. I arranged reunions for them in China. I smuggled antiques out of North Korea and sold them in China. I sold ginseng and pheasants to China. And I dealt ice [methamphetamines.]. Officially, I was a factory worker, but I bribed my way out of having to go to work. If you don’t operate this way in North Korea, you have nothing.

The salary for doctors was about 3,500 won a month. That was less than it cost to buy one kilogram of rice. So of course, being a doctor was not my main job. My main job was smuggling at night. I would send herbal medicine from North Korea into China, and with the money, I would import home appliances back into North Korea. Rice cookers, notels, LCD monitors, that kind of thing.

From the biggest cities to the smallest villages, there is now some kind of market building where people can sell their wares and keep their profits. Some are state-run, some are state-sanctioned, some are ad hoc. The markets have been retroactively legalized by the regime.

Money is now needed for nearly everything — even for the parts of communist life that the Kim regime crows about providing, like housing and schooling. Bribery and corruption have become endemic, undermining the regime by loosening controls and creating incentives that may not always be in line with Kim’s priorities.

Technically, you don’t have to pay to go to school, but the teachers tell you that you have to submit a certain amount of beans or rabbit skins that can be sold. If you don’t submit, you get told off continuously, and that’s why students stop going to school. The kids are hurt just because the parents can’t afford it.

I used to pay the teachers at my daughter’s school so they would look after her better than others. I would give them 120,000 won at a time — that’s enough to buy 25 kilograms of rice — twice a year. If you don’t pay the teachers, they won’t make any effort.

I lived through all three Kims, but our life was not getting any better for any of us. We all have to pay for Kim Jong Un’s projects, like Ryomyong Street [a residential development in Pyongyang]. We had to contribute 15,000 North Korean won per household [more than four months’ salary] to the government for that street.

My main business was selling ice. I think that 70 or 80 percent of the adults in Hoeryong city were using ice. My customers were just ordinary people. Police officers, security agents, party members, teachers, doctors. Ice made a really good gift for birthday parties or for high school graduation presents. It makes you feel good and helps you release stress, and it really helps relations between men and women. My 76-year-old mother was using it because she had low blood pressure, and it worked well. Lots of police officers and security agents would come to my house to smoke, and of course I didn’t charge them — they were my protection. They would come by during their lunch break, stop by my house. The head of the secret police in my area was almost living at my house.

“Lots of police officers and security agents would come to my house to smoke, and of course I didn’t charge them — they were my protection.”

The ability to make money, sometimes lots of money, through means both legal and illegal has led to visible inequality in a country that has long touted itself as an egalitarian socialist paradise. This could be a potential source of disruption. Bean traders and drug dealers and everyone in between have the prospect of making a decent living. Those working only in official jobs, whether they be on a state-owned ostrich farm or in a government ministry in Pyongyang, earn only a few dollars a month and get little in the way of rations to supplement their meager salaries.

Skating rinks opened in 2013, and rollerblading became a really big thing. Rich kids had their own rollerblades. We’d carry them slung over our shoulders as we walked to the rink — it was a status symbol, a sign that you have money. I bought my rollerblades at the market. They were pink, and it cost 200 Chinese yuan. That’s the same price as 30 kilograms of rice. It’s unthinkable for poor kids.

There were long periods where we didn’t get paid. I once went for six months without getting any salary at all. We lived in a shipping container at the construction site. We were given rice and cabbage and one egg per person per day, and we had an electric coil in our container that we could cook on. We needed some protein because our work was so hard, so we started buying pigskin at the market because it was cheap. Washing was like a special occasion. But if you went to the bathhouse, you would miss out on work. Once I didn’t bathe for two months. We didn’t think anything of it. It was just the way we lived.

“There were long periods where we didn’t get paid. I once went for six months without getting any salary at all.”

Cellphones are a big thing. To be able to afford a smartphone, you had to come from a rich family. Of course, there were some poor kids at my school, but I didn’t hang out with them. I had an Arirang smartphone that cost $400. When boys came up to talk to me, I’d check out their phone. If they had one of those old-style phones with buttons, I wasn’t interested.

The markets are the distribution point not just for goods, but also for information. Chatter, rumors, illicit foreign media.

Women make their living in the market, and while they’re sitting there at the stalls, they talk. So the market is a great place to learn about the outside world.

I watched lots of [smuggled] movies and soap operas on USB sticks from the market. I would plug them into my TV. Vendors who are selling ordinary things like batteries or rice or whatever, they hide the USBs inside under the counter. When you go into the market you say to the vendors: Do you have anything delicious today? That’s the code. USBs are also good because they are so easy to hide, and you can just break them if you get caught.

“When you go into the market you say to the vendors: Do you have anything delicious today?”

In the past, if you watched Chinese movies on USBs you were okay. You got put in a labor camp only if you were caught with South Korean or American movies. But now, under Kim Jong Un, you get sent to a labor camp if you’re caught watching Chinese movies, too. The police and the security services and government officials live better these days. The more people they catch, the more money they earn.

I was 8 years old when I started watching foreign movies. I always liked watching romantic South Korean dramas like “My Fair Lady.” I loved the way that women were being cherished. North Korea is a very male-oriented society, men never bother about taking care of women. And I liked to look at their fancy cars and houses.

My mom worked in the market selling home appliances, so she had a way to get DVDs. I watched Chinese, Indian and Russian movies, and lots of South Korean soap operas. I thought that if I got to South Korea, I could do anything I wanted.

It is impossible to overstate the pervasiveness of the personality cult surrounding the Kims in North Korea. Founding President Kim Il Sung, his son Kim Jong Il and his grandson, the current leader, Kim Jong Un form a kind of holy trinity in North Korea. There is no criticizing them or questioning the system — at least not without risking your freedom and the freedom of your entire family. Your life itself could be at stake.

I learned songs about the general and about the Kim family and how great Kim Il Sung was.

We got gifts on Kim Jong Un’s birthday: candy and cookies and gum and puffed rice. I was so grateful to him for giving me all these sweets. We would stand up in class and say, “Thank you, General Kim Jong Un.”

“We would stand up in class and say, ‘Thank you, General Kim Jong Un.’”

We had ideological education for 90 minutes every day. There was revolutionary history, lessons about Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un. Of course, they taught us about why we needed nuclear weapons, and they would tell us that we needed to make sacrifices in our daily lives so they could build these weapons and protect our country, keep the nation safe. I was so sick and tired of hearing about all this revolutionary history, I was so sick of calling everyone “comrade.” I didn’t care about any of that stuff.

Everybody knew that Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un were both liars, that everything is their fault, but it’s impossible to voice any opposition because we are under such tight surveillance. If someone is drunk and says Kim Jong Un is a son of a bitch, you’ll never see them again.

It’s like a religion. From birth, you learn about the Kim family, learn that they are gods, that you must be absolutely obedient to the Kim family. The elites are treated nicely, and because of that they make sure that the system stays stable. But for everyone else, it’s a reign of terror. The Kim family uses terror to keep people scared, and that makes it impossible to stage any kind of social gathering, let alone an uprising.

We had education sessions when we would go back to the main building and into a big room where there were portraits of the leaders. Everyone had to bow and buy bunches of flowers to lay in front of the portraits. There would be a speech by the boss, who was a party member. We would hear about how Kim Jong Un had done this and this and that [he] was working so hard for the party and for the nation and for the people. I believed it up until the Kim Jong Un era, but this exaggeration was just too much. It just didn’t make sense.

Every month there was special instruction about Kim Jong Un. It came down from Pyongyang to the neighborhood associations. We were told that Kim Jong Un wanted to know everything so that he could take proper care of everyone, help everyone. Nobody believed this because if Kim Jong Un knew we had no electricity and were eating corn rice [imitation rice made from ground corn], why wasn’t he doing anything about it?

There was this story going around that Kim Il Sung had asked Kim Jong Un to get him an apple. Kim Jong Un asked for a shovel because he wanted to bring the whole tree. It was the kind of joke that the secret police would create. Instead of just doing top-down teaching, they would also create stories like this [about devotion to the regime] because they thought that their propaganda would circulate better as rumors and would seem more convincing.

North Korea operates as a vast surveillance state, with a menacing state security department called the Bowibu as its backbone. Its agents are everywhere and operate with impunity.

The regime also operates a kind of neighborhood watch system. Every district in every town or city is broken up into neighborhood groups of 30 or 40 households, each with a leader who is responsible for coordinating grass-roots surveillance and encouraging people to snitch.

People in each neighborhood association are always checking up on each other. If one family seems to be living better than everyone else, then all the neighbors try to find out how they are making their money. Everybody is sensitive because if someone seems to be living well, then people get jealous of that house. Nobody has to be asked to bring that wealthy family down and make sure that this wealthy family loses their money. When you see a family lose their house, that feels good. That’s why it’s important not to show off how wealthy you are.

Of course I thought about the outside world, but if you say, “I want to go to China or South Korea,” then it can be reported by an informant to the security services. You can think it, but you can’t say it. You never know who is going to snitch on you. We often heard and saw how Chinese people had money because Chinese people used to come to North Korea to sell things, so we thought it would be nice to live there.

There were youth leaders who would patrol around, looking for things that we weren’t supposed to be doing. If you were wearing jeans or skinny pants, or if you had a manicure or your hair was too long, you would get in trouble. They would sometimes check your phone to see if you had any South Korean songs. I got busted for this, but I got out of it by buying them a box of 20 bottles of beer.

“They would sometimes check your phone to see if you had any South Korean songs.”

For those who ran afoul of the regime in ways that money could not solve, the punishment could be harsh.

When I was 16, I was staying at my grandma’s house and there was a banging on the door late at night. Two secret police officers took me to the police station and asked me: “Where are your parents?” I told them I didn’t know. It turned out that they had gone missing and I suspected that my mom’s business associates, when they realized this, planted a whole lot of stuff on her, said that she was the mastermind behind this big smuggling operation. The police yelled at me: “You’re just like your mother. You probably have fantasies about China, too.” They slapped my face about five times.

The first time I went to prison, I had been caught helping people make phone calls to their relatives in South Korea. I was sentenced to four months’ hard labor, building a road on the side of a mountain that they said we needed in case there was a war. The men did the digging and the women had to carry rocks and soil.

Escapees from North Korea’s gruesome political prisons have recounted brutal treatment over the years, including medieval torture with shackles and fire and being forced to undergo abortions by the crudest methods. Human rights activists say that this appears to have lessened slightly under Kim. But severe beatings and certain kinds of torture — including being forced to remain in stress positions for crippling lengths of time — are commonplace throughout North Korea’s detention systems, as are public executions.

I was interrogated again by the secret police, and they wanted to know about my mother’s business. They were slapping me around the face again. They always go for the face. I was beaten severely that time. They pushed me so hard against the wall that I had blood coming from my head. I still get a headache sometimes. While I was there they made me sit with my legs crossed and my arms resting on my knees and my head always down. If you move at all or if you try to stretch your legs out, they will yell at you and hit you. I had to stay like that for hours on end.

In 2015, a money transfer went bad — the woman I’d given the money to got caught and she ratted on me — and I was put in detention. I spent two months there. I wasn’t treated like a human being — they beat me, they made me sit in stress positions where I couldn’t lift my head. Two times they slapped my face and kicked me during interrogation, but I was not beaten up badly. Maybe because I was not a nobody, maybe they feared that I knew someone who could get back at them.

Starvation is often part of the punishment, even for children. The 16-year-old lost 13 pounds in prison, weighing only 88 pounds when she emerged.

We got up at 6 a.m. every day and went to bed at 11 p.m., and in between we would be working the whole time, shoveling cement or lugging sacks, except for lunch. Lunch was usually steamed corn. I was too scared to eat. I cried a lot. I didn’t want to live.

Even though we were working so hard in prison camp, all we got to eat was a tiny bit of corn rice and a small potato. By the time I got out, I was so malnourished I could hardly walk.

It is this web of prisons and concentration camps, coupled with the threat of execution, that stops people from speaking up. There is no organized dissent in North Korea, no political opposition.

If you make problems, then your whole family gets punished. That’s why people don’t want to make any trouble. If I get punished for my wrongdoing, that’s one thing. But it’s my whole family that would be put at risk if I did something. North Koreans have seen that Kim Jong Un killed his own uncle, so we understand how merciless he can be. That’s why you can’t have an uprising in North Korea.

The secret to North Korea’s survival is the reign of terror. Why do you think North Korea has public executions? Why do you think they block all communications? Why do you think North Koreans leave, knowing that they will never see their families again? It shows how bad things are. All our rights as people have been stripped away.

If you speak out against the system, you will immediately be arrested. And if you do something wrong, then three generations of your family will be punished. In 2009, I heard there was a going to be some kind of coup launched in Chongjin and that all of the people involved were executed. When you hear about cases like this, of course you’re scared. So instead of trying to do something to change the system, it’s better just to leave.

Some people do leave, but not that many. It’s incredibly risky and logistically difficult to get around the border guards and the barbed wire. Unknown thousands cross into China each year. Some remain in China, almost always young women who get sold to poor Chinese men in the countryside who can’t get a wife any other way. Some get caught and sent back — to certain imprisonment.

I had lived in China for 20 years, but someone must have reported me. I was sent back to North Korea, and I spent two and a half years in a prison camp. [After she had left once more for China], I knew I couldn’t be repatriated again. I thought that it would be the end of my life.

But each year, a thousand or so North Koreans make it to South Korea. In the 20-odd years since the famine, only 30,000 North Koreans have made it to the southern side of the peninsula.

During the late 1990s and the early 2000s, almost all the North Koreans who fled were escaping out of hunger or economic need. But the explosion of markets has improved life for many. Today, more people are leaving North Korea because they are disillusioned with the system, not because they can’t feed their families.

I was ambitious. I wanted to be a party member and enjoy all the opportunities that come with that. My dream was to make lots of money and be a high-ranking government official. Family background means so much in North Korea, but I had family in China and I realized that this would stop me from being able to follow my dreams. I left because I didn’t have the freedom to do what I wanted to do.

I wanted to progress in life, I wanted to go to university, but because my mother had defected to China, it looked like I wouldn’t be able to go any further. It looked like I would be stuck in North Korea where I was. I could have moved, lived, no problem, but I felt like I didn’t have any future in North Korea. That’s why I decided to leave.

We were told in school that we could be anybody. But after graduation, I realized that this wasn’t true and that I was being punished for somebody else’s wrongdoing. I realized I wouldn’t be able to survive here. So for two years I looked for a way out. When I thought about escaping, it gave me a psychological boost.

I hoped to work abroad as a doctor in the Middle East or Africa. But to work overseas you have to pass security screening to make sure you’re ideologically sound and aren’t going to defect. That’s a problem that money can’t solve and that’s where I got blocked. I was very angry, very annoyed. I cursed our society. I am a very capable person, and I was a party member, but even I couldn’t make it.

I worked for three and a half years, but I made only $2,000 during that time. We were allowed to work overseas for five years maximum, and I was hoping to save $10,000 and return home proud. I realized it wasn’t going to happen, so I started looking for a chance to escape.

I was so disgusted with the system. I didn’t have freedom to speak my mind, or to travel anywhere I wanted, or even to wear what I wanted. It was like living in a prison. We were monitored all the time by our neighborhood leader, by the normal police, by the secret police. If you ask me what was the worst thing about North Korea, I’d say: Being born there.

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Cold reading | New Humanist

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ghost glassIn the old black-and-white plate, the pool of shadow on the left of the ghost’s face uncurled its legs to scuttle for the margin and the cluttered desk beyond. I shrank back in my seat and, no word of a lie, I genuinely felt it. It was over in a second when I realised it was just a garden spider come indoors out of the cold, what had been camouflaged against the dark bits of the photo, but I really felt that sort of tingle up the spine that all my clients go on about, so I know what they’re saying. I can empathise with them. It’s not all acting.

Actually, to be perfectly honest, I think nine times out of ten it’s that gives us what I suppose you’d call a supernatural feeling: something turning out to not be what you thought it was. I can remember, I was only six or seven when I saw my first and only ghost. I was with Mum and Dad in the lounge of a seaside pub at night, standing there glued to the glass doors and gawping out into the dark, not thinking of anything in particular. Just then I saw this man walking across the car park of the pub away from me. He wasn’t any colour. He was all washed out and grey, and then I realised there were parts of him that I could see through. I could see the scrubby strips of grass, the bollards and the drooping lengths of chain that closed the car park in, through the black folds and shadows of his jacket. I thought, ‘It’s a ghost! I’m really seeing one!’ And then, and this was the most frightening bit, it turned its head and looked straight at me. It had got two blurry faces, one of them just slightly offset from the other, and it smiled in at me through the glass from out there in the night, and then it spoke my name. It’s like, I saw its lips move but I heard its voice as if it was right next to me, rather than outside in the car park. It said ‘Ricky? Would you like a Fanta?’

Obviously, it was my Dad, standing behind me in the lounge with his reflection superimposed on the dark outside. The business with two faces turned out to be caused by double glazing, but just for a second there, you know? I’d thought it was a ghost and that it proved all of the stories that I’d heard from other kids at school. I think it made me cry and when I explained why, about the ghost and everything, Dad told me off and said I was like an old woman, getting taken in by all that superstitious rubbish. Always very level-headed was my father, and I probably take after him in that respect, although I never really liked him much. I was much closer to my mum, but then that’s very often how it is with boys, especially an only child. When Dad passed on I suppose Mum was my first audience, as well as being my most willing and my most appreciative. She thought the world of me, my mum. She gave a little gasp and filled up when I did his voice and said, ‘I always loved you, Irene.’

Knowing Dad, it was a safe bet that he’d never told her that in life, and when I saw the comfort that I’d brought that woman, my own mum, that’s when I knew I had a gift. That’s when I knew what Ricky Sullivan had been put on this earth for. Oh, there’ll always be the unbelievers and debunkers in the papers, on the telly or what have you and it does, it makes me angry when they say people like me are cold, unfeeling, just taking advantage and all that. I’m sorry, but if they could see the happiness in people’s faces, if they really thought about the service me and others like me are providing, giving people strength to get on with their lives when they’ve just lost a loved one, well, they couldn’t say the things they say. I’m sorry, they just couldn’t. I don’t have to justify myself.

I mean, do I believe all of the things that I tell people? In my heart, I can’t say that I do. But then, what about priests? You can’t tell me that all of them believe every last word of what they preach, but do they get called ‘ghouls in cardigans’ or ‘Vincent Price, but camp’? No. No, they don’t. That’s because people recognise all of the reassurance and the comfort that religion brings to people, and it doesn’t really matter if it’s true or not. Or doctors, it’s like doctors when they say that a placebo, that’s like, what, a sugar pill? That a placebo can work wonders without any side effects, but that they can’t prescribe them ’cause of all the medical red tape and ethics, health and safety, all that business. That’s me. I’m a spiritual sugar pill, but I do people good. I’m sorry, but I touch their lives.

And yes, I suppose you could say that I’ve done very well out of it, got the mortgage on this house paid off last year, but that’s not what I do it for. It’s not the money. How can I explain? It’s more the gratitude, the look on some poor widow’s face and knowing that you’ve helped them. That, to me, what can I say? That look’s worth more than gold. That’s my reward, right there.

Although this place is very nice, it must be said, with the old-fashioned furniture and all the books, the angel figurines along the mantelpiece, all that. It’s mostly for the clients’ benefit, same as the New Age music I’ve got on. It reassures them, makes them feel as if they’re in safe hands. No, no, it’s very comfortable. It’s very cosy, and especially now that the clocks have gone back and we’ve got these cold nights. If I peer out of the window at the park across the road it looks like one of them old-fashioned fogs tonight, where you can hardly even see the trees. It just makes me feel all the warmer, with the central heating turned up, standing here in this new cardigan that one of my old ladies knitted for me. Said I hadn’t charged enough for all the happiness I’d brought her, bless her, and she knew that I liked cardigans. A lovely lady. No, when I was little, what I liked best were the rainy, windy nights when I could lay tucked up in bed and think about all of the people out there in the cold, so that I could feel even snugger by comparison. I’m lucky in that that’s what my whole life’s like these days, very snug. Snug by comparison, you might say. Ah. There goes the phone. The landline, not my mobile, although even I have trouble telling them apart because the ring tone’s very similar.

‘Hello, there. You’ve reached Ricky Sullivan – the angel’s answering service. This is Ricky speaking. So, how can I help you?’

‘Um, hello. My name’s Dave, David Berridge. Look, I’ve...well, I’ve lost somebody, y’know, recently, and I was just...I don’t know. To be honest, I’ve been in two minds about if I should ring you up or not. I’ve never really been much of a one for all this, no offence, and I don’t even know if they’d approve, the person that I’ve lost...’

Just judging from the accent he’s a local man, probably lower middle-class and in his, what, his forties? Early fifties? He sounds lost, as if his life’s just fell to bits and nothing makes sense to him anymore. He’s calling out for help, and I’ve already heard enough to know that as clients go, this one is classic Ricky Sullivan. You can tell quite a lot about a person just from speaking to them on the phone. I’m writing down his full name on my jotter even as I’m talking to him.

‘Mr. Berridge, let me stop you right there. I prefer it if vessels of light...that’s what I call my clients...if vessels of light don’t tell me anything about themselves before they come in for a consultation, if that’s what you should decide to do. That way I get a clearer reading of their aura, without any preconceptions, and it’s fairer on them. What I always say is, if a person has a genuine psychic gift, why should you tell them everything? They should be telling you! That way, you can judge for yourself if I’m the real thing or not. That’s only fair. We do get a few con men in this business, and that’s why I insist that the special people who’ve been brave enough to seek my help are treated properly and given credit as intelligent adults. I’m sorry, but that’s just the way I am. Now, if you should decide to come in for a consultation that’ll be just 50 pounds, or it’s 100 for a house call. No need to bring any money with you, you can pay me when you get the invoice in a week or two, and only if you think that what I’ve done in contacting your loved one’s worth that much.’

I used to ask less, but I found that people are more likely to believe in something if they’ve paid more for it. Mr. Berridge, he sounds half convinced already, though his manner’s very shaken and uncertain. I expect that he’s been through a lot. He ums and ahs a bit and then asks if he can come to the house and have a consultation, perhaps later, around eight or so? I tell him that’s fine, and that he can call by earlier if he likes, I shall be in all evening. It’s a little touch, but it makes everything feel more relaxed and casual. It puts people at their ease and makes them feel as though they’re in control of things, and that’s important when you’ve had a loss.

He thanks me and hangs up, and right away I fish out the old iPhone and look up the local paper’s website, scrolling through the last two weeks’ obituaries before I find the name that I’ve got scribbled on my notepad. ‘Berridge, Dennis, beloved brother of David, uncle of Darrell and Josephine, passed away quietly at home, November blah blah blah’, and after that there was one of those poems that they must get from a book, like Best Man’s speeches. I’m not criticising. People are entitled to their feelings, obviously, but I just feel it’s tacky and it’s inappropriate, I’m sorry but I do, especially when it’s about something as personal as someone’s death.

So, anyway, a brother, then. I check and see if Mr. Berridge is on Facebook, and it turns out I’m in luck. Just reading through the updates and then following up links to a few other sites, I’ve pretty soon got all the information that I need to make a good impression on the client when he turns up. From what I’m reading here they weren’t just brothers, they were twins. It’s hardly any wonder David Berridge sounded so shook up. They say they often share a psychic link, do twins, and when one of them dies it must be terrible. I can remember Ronnie Kray, the gangster, when he died and it said in the paper that his brother Reg had sent a wreath he’d made out ‘to the other half of me’. It must be dreadful, losing somebody so close. You’d be so vulnerable. Still, on the bright side, it makes all my prep work easier, only having the one birth-date to remember and with a good many details of their upbringing in common. And it says here they’re identical, so David’s Facebook photo will do me for Dennis, too: a very bland face with fine, mousey hair that’s going grey and starting to recede; a light dusting of freckles on the nose; lacklustre eyes and a slight overbite that makes his mouth look rabbity. He doesn’t look as if he’s got much to him, to be frank about it, although I suppose it might be a poor choice of photograph. That’s why I always make sure Jenny, she’s my press girl, I make sure that she runs all the pictures by me before sending them out anywhere. I don’t want any more of me with that little moustache I used to have. I mean, I’ve never looked like Vincent Price, that’s just ridiculous, but where’s the sense in giving people ammunition? Anyway, clean shaven I look younger.

Oh, now this is interesting. Dennis Berridge had a blog, apparently. Hmm. Flicking through the recent entries, I’m afraid I have to say...oh, now, that’s very negative. That’s very harsh...I have to say he doesn’t sound like someone that I’d have got on with. In the science stream at school, then working as a physics teacher until it all got too much for him and he took an early retirement this last April. He sounds like a very bitter man. He starts off ranting about the Americans, the Christians, how they’re saying that the Bible should be taught alongside evolution in the schools. Well, I don’t see what’s wrong with that, with putting both sides of the argument. Oh, here we go. It’s Richard Dawkins this and Richard Dawkins that. There’s all the old stuff about homeopathy, how can it work with the dilution and the rest of it, and I expect...yes, here we are. “Why isn’t Doris Stokes keeping in touch more often since she died? Surely she still has books to push?” That’s low. I’m sorry, that’s just low. I mean, the woman’s dead and she can’t answer back. Show some respect, that’s all I’m saying.

Thinking back, that must be what his brother meant when he said that he didn’t know if the departed would approve of him consulting me. No, no, I’ll bet he wouldn’t. I’ll bet Dennis would regard that as a bitter irony, the thought of someone like me having the last laugh. Wouldn’t he just?

I memorise all the important details...a Great Dane called Benji that both twins were soft on when they were eleven, things like that...and then I smarten up the front room for when Mr. Berridge calls. There’s not much that needs doing, just some little touches to create the proper atmosphere. I put the dimmers down a whisker and then light a joss-stick. I’m not sure what kind of incense it is technically. It’s that sort that smells a bit pink, if you know what I mean. I put a couple of my most impressive ghost books on the coffee table. There’s the Eliot O’Donnell Haunted Britain where the spider gave me a fright earlier, and a great big thing full of airbrushed angels, just there lying casually around as if I read them all the time when actually I’m not what you’d call a great reader. Even Haunted Britain, I just got it for the pictures, really. They’re very impressive at first glance. You take the monk, ‘PLATE II. PHOTOGRAPH OF A NOTORIOUS SOMERSET GHOST’. It’s a proper what-I-call old-fashioned spooky apparition, manifesting on the well-lit landing of a fancy house in Bristol. Only when you’ve looked at it a minute or two do you notice how the light that’s falling on the monk is coming from a different side to everything else in the picture, so that you can tell it’s a double-exposure. And of course, you have to ask yourself what the photographer (a Mr. A.S. Palmer, it says in the caption) would be doing setting up his camera and his lighting kit to take a picture of an empty stretch of landing. Still, like I say, it’s effective if you only catch a glimpse of it.

Was that the doorbell? With the background music that I’ve got on now, Rainforest Sounds, there’s some bits where it’s very tinkly, like what are they called, wind-chimes, and it’s difficult to tell if someone’s at the door or not. It’s only half-past seven so I shouldn’t think it’s time for my vessel of light yet, although I did say he could come early if he wanted. Even out here in the hallway, I can’t make out if there’s anybody there outside the frosted glass. It’s probably just shadows from my hedge, but I expect I’d better check and see in case it’s...

‘Hello. Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you. Would you be Mr. Sullivan?’

God, Ricky, get a grip. First it’s a spider, and now this. I’ve heard of being highly strung and sensitive, but this is being an old woman like your dad said. Still, I make a good recovery.

‘Yes. Yes, I am. I’m Ricky Sullivan, lovely to meet you. I hope you’ve not stood here long, only I had some music on and wasn’t sure if I could hear the bell or not. You must be Mr. Berridge.’

He’s just like his Facebook picture, except he’s a bit more drawn and crumpled-looking since he had that took, a bit more haggard, which is the bereavement, I expect. He’s standing framed there in the open doorway, letting all the cold in. He looks up and manages a weary little smile, bless.

‘Mr. Berridge, yes, that’s right. And no, I’d only just turned up. I hadn’t even had a chance to ring the bell. You must have had one of those feelings that you fellers have.’

Well, there’s a stroke of luck. He’s half convinced and he’s not even in the door yet.

‘Oh, well, it’s not much, but there’s times when me having a God-given gift can come in handy. Anyway, come in the warm. We’ll see what I can do to help you, shall we?’

He sidles in past me, still with that self-deprecating smile, and I shut the front door behind him. It’s that cold outside that you can feel it in the hallway, even with the heating up. There’s no wind, and the fog’s just hanging there like rubbed-out smudges on a pencil drawing. He goes through into the front room and sits down upon the sofa without taking his long mac off, which gives the impression that he’s not anticipating staying very long. Well, we’ll see about that.

‘Mr. Berridge, can I just say that when you walked in, I got a very strong impression. Stronger than I usually pick up off of my regular vessels of light. You’ve recently been separated from somebody, am I right? Not just somebody close, but someone who was so close to you that I can’t even imagine what it must have been like. No, no, let me finish. I’m getting a letter ‘D’ and what I think might be a name? Denzel? Is that right? Wait a minute...no. That’s not right. No, it’s Dennis. Definitely Dennis. And the picture that I’m getting...no, that must be wrong. That can’t be right. I’m sorry, Mr. Berridge, but I think I’m going to have to let you down. I must be having an off night. I’m trying to get a picture of your loved one, but all I can see is...well, it’s you, basically.’

Oh, yes. That’s got his attention. He looks up into my eyes, with that same rueful little smile, and shakes his head in wonderment.

‘It’s my twin brother. That’s who I’ve been separated from. I’ve got to say I didn’t know if I should come to visit you like this, but, well, you’re living up to all my hopes and expectations. So, can he say anything, my brother? Is there any message that he’s got for me?’

I’m sorry, but I can’t resist it, not when I’ve read all that rubbish on his brother’s blog.

‘Yes. Yes, there is. I’m not sure I can understand it properly, but I think Dennis wants to say that he was wrong. Does that make any sense? I’m sensing that he never thought there’d be an after-life, and that he might have had some harsh words about those of us who do. Is that an accurate impression, that I’m passing on? He’s saying he wants to apologise, and he knows better now. He says it’s wonderful, the place he’s in. He’s telling me that he’s been reunited with old friends. He says to tell you he’s with...Benjamin, or Benji? Is that right? Is that somebody that you used to know?’

To tell the truth, I threw that last bit in just on an impulse, but I’ve hit the jackpot, so to speak. He’s filling up. He’s staring at me and his eyes are wet. The little smile he had is gone.

‘Benji was...he was a Great Dane that we had when we were kids. Both of us loved him. But then, you know that already. Mr. Sullivan, to think that you could bring up a beloved childhood pet like that...you’re truly unbelievable. If I had any doubts about what kind of man you were before I came to see you, they’re all gone. And what you said, how Dennis was always so sure that there was no life after death and having to reluctantly admit that he was wrong, that all rings very true as well. That’s very much what Dennis used to be like. Very much the cold-eyed rationalist. It must have took him by surprise, his current circumstances, but if I know him he’d see the funny side as well.’

The little smile’s come back again. I’m not a one to brag, but I think we can chalk up this one as a victory for Ricky Sullivan. I’m wondering, if I offer a cup of tea and biscuits perhaps we can chat about his brother for a while and then I’ll see him out, ching, fifty quid, but no, he’s off again.

‘Am I correct in thinking that you said you’d do a house-call for a hundred pounds? I wasn’t certain earlier that it would be the proper thing to do, but like I say, that business about Benji, you’ve convinced me. You’re the right person to do this with. I mean, surely you’d get a clearer message, wouldn’t you, if we were in the actual house where Dennis lived?’

I’m nodding from the point where he mentioned the hundred pounds. Well, I must say, I hadn’t thought this sounded very promising when David Berridge rang up earlier. He sounded so nervous and hesitant I wasn’t even sure that he’d turn up, but listen to him now after he’s had a dose of what I call the Ricky Sullivan effect. He’s like a different person. He’s more confident. It’s like he’s made his mind up. I think that’s a measure of the magic I bring to a situation, just my personality.

‘Well, yes, I’m sure that it’d make things clearer. More vibrations with a visit, obviously. Were you after making an appointment, or was it tonight that you were thinking of? I mean, I don’t mind. With the bookings I’ve got coming up, tonight would actually be quite convenient.’

Meaning it’s better from my point of view if we go now while he’s still feeling the enthusiasm, rather than giving him time to change his mind. But no, he’s nodding. He looks eager.

‘No, tonight is good. Tonight is perfect. It’s not far. We could be there in twenty minutes.’

This is turning out to be a very profitable evening. For the house, I’ve still got plenty of material I haven’t used, their parents names and so on, so I can give him his money’s worth. I can give him a proper visitation. I wonder if I dare do his brother’s voice? It’s a safe bet that they’d sound very like each other, but you never know. His brother might have had a stammer or a lisp or something. We’ll see how it goes, play it by ear. He stands up from the sofa with his hands still jammed deep in his raincoat pockets...he’s not took them out the whole time that he’s been here. He must be feeling the weather even worse than I am...and I take my scarf and leather coat down from the peg out in the hall so I can let us out. It cost a lot the coat, but you should see it on. It makes me look much taller and much more mysterious, like somebody from out The X-Files or The Matrix.

I shepherd him out the door, and while I lock it after us I hear the phone go. It might be another client, so my natural impulse is to pop back in and answer it, but no. I’ll let it go. The answer-phone will pick it up, and anyway, if I’m that interested I can always call the landline when I’m out and see who left a message. When I put my keys back in my pocket I have a quick fumble and make sure I’ve got my mobile, safe inside a kiddie’s knitted bootie, which is what I keep it in. I turn round and venture a breezy ‘Right, shall we be off?’ but David, Mr. Berridge, is already out the open front gate and away along the street, so that I have to hurry to catch up with him.

Oh, but it’s bitter out tonight. It strikes right at you through your cardigan. I don’t think that I can remember a December quite as cold as this since I was little. It’s the kind of cold that takes you back, and with the fog it’s dreadful. I’d forgotten, but it has a smell to it, does fog. It’s like damp smoke or something, it’s less of a smell than it’s a miserable musty feeling in your nose. And there’s a sort of cold burn in your airways when you breathe it. To be honest, I’ll be glad to get the stuff with Berridge over with so I can get back home. It’s, what, just after eight now. Twenty minutes there and twenty back, another twenty for the business, I could probably be back in time for Q.I. I’ll admit, the humour isn’t always to my taste but you can find out all these interesting little facts, like how the sea-slug’s actually a form of cucumber if I remember right. Isn’t that fascinating? If only these sceptics, all these types like Mr. Berridge’s late brother, if they could just open up their eyes and see how marvellous and inexplicable God’s wonders really are, like with the nature and that, then perhaps they wouldn’t be so smug and certain when it came to voicing their opinions. Because that’s all that they are, opinions. None of us can really know for certain, can we, what awaits us on the other side? I must say, I wish Mr. Berridge would slow down a bit. Still, he’s keen. That’s the main thing.

We walk down the road beside the park and then cross that dual carriageway that’s at the bottom end. It’s funny, but for saying that it’s so near Christmas, there’s hardly a soul about. Must be the weather, keeping them indoors. Or the recession. People always look so worried and so tense this time of year. It’s very stressful, isn’t it, trying to live up to everybody’s expectations? Not that I find it a problem, Christmas. To be honest, I always look forward to it. I mean, ever since my mother passed I haven’t really anyone to buy for, so it’s not a great expense. I know that for some people it’s a very lonely time, and that it’s when you get most of the suicides and that, but speaking personally I always find I get a little bulge in clients and consultations around January, so it’s an ill wind and so forth.

There’s kebab-shop neon and occasionally a set of headlights burning through the fog. We walk along by the dual carriageway for a few minutes, then we cross another main road that runs off downhill. I’m too puffed keeping up with him to make much of a go at conversation, but it’s not like there’s an awkward silence. We’re just eager to get where we’re going, for our different reasons. He’s thinking about his brother and I’m thinking about Stephen Fry and that hundred-and-fifty quid.

You know, in all the years I’ve lived where I am now, I’ve never had much cause to come down this way previously, and never as far as this. It’s what I think of as one of the rougher neighbourhoods, where most of it’s all tower blocks but where you’ll get the odd building going back to Cromwell’s time or even earlier. I don’t know why they don’t just pave it over, put a precinct up or something, with some nice pavement cafés. It’s probably the riff-raff down here with their tenant’s rights and everything that’s stopping it from happening. I know that this sounds awful, but if we have a bad winter, what with all these cuts, it might thin out some of the obstacles around these parts and end up being the best thing that’s ever happened to the district. There. I’m sorry, but I’ve said it.

If you want the honest truth I think it’s areas like this that are the real ghosts, aren’t they? Mouldy old things, dead things from hundreds of years ago that have no right to still be making an appearance in the present day, with all their creaking woodwork and their rattling chains. These terrible young men with their pale, undernourished faces and their hoodie tops, like apparitions, like the monk in Mr. A.S. Palmer’s photograph. Shrieks in the night and phantom bloodstains on the paving slabs outside a takeaway that will have disappeared by the next afternoon, it is, it’s like a gothic novel. And just like a ghost, a neighbourhood like this will hang around for centuries with all its flapping rags and its depressing atmosphere. It’s an accusing presence, making everyone feel guilty about things that happened before most of us were born. It’s not our fault if people were too lazy to make something of themselves and find a better place to live. Leave us alone.

Oh, look at that. A great big lump of dog’s mess on the pavement. That’s disgusting. I’m lucky I spotted it, what with the fog. If Dennis Berridge had to live round here, all I can say is that he can’t have been much of a physics teacher. Or perhaps he was, but never got on in the education system as it is now. Either way, it must have made him bitter that somewhere like this was all he could afford. Reading his blog, I sensed he was a very angry man. You’ll often find that people who say nasty things about spiritual healers, which is how I see myself, you’ll often find that it’s their own frustrations and their failures that they’re really cross about, deep down inside. His brother David here, though, seems much more contented in himself, more open-minded and more likeable. Walking a pace or two ahead he turns and glances back across his shoulder at me with his funny smile that, frankly, in the useless lamplight that they have down here, is looking a bit ghastly. Doesn’t look like a vessel of light, let’s put it that way, but you must remember that he’s had a blow, the poor soul.

‘Not far now. Dennis’s house is just along the end here.’

Well, thank God for that. If we’d have had to go much further, I think I’d have wanted rabies shots. I’m sorry, but I would. This street we’re on, it’s like a terraced row with little badly-kept front gardens, most of them with the gates hanging off or missing altogether. David takes a right turn up the pathway of a pebble-dashed affair and I follow behind him. The house looks to be in a better condition than the other properties along here, although not by much. It’s shabby, and the paint’s all peeling off round the front doorway, but at least its windows aren’t smashed in and patched with plasterboard like that house that we just passed two doors down. Someone had drawn a willy on its wood fence with black spray-paint and it’s had, you know, the stuff, the droplets coming out the end. Who wants to see that? They’ve got ugly minds, some people. Ugly minds.

‘I’ll tell you what, I’ll just check round the side to see that all the windows and back door are still alright since Dennis died. He kept a key under that flowerpot, next to the front doorstep there. Let yourself in, and if they’ve cut off the electric there’s a big torch in the passage, just inside the door.’

This is a bit irregular but, still, a hundred pounds. I have a job finding the plant-pot in the dark and then my fingertips are that cold that they’re numb, so that I’ve only just unlocked the door and found the torch that Mr. Berridge mentioned when he’s back from his inspection, standing there behind me. I can’t see his face in this light, but I know he’ll have that weary, gormless smile showing his rabbit teeth, that little overbite he’s got. I switch the torch on and it throws a puddle of tea-coloured light along the passageway, so I can see the bottom the stairs. I think that’s...no. Is it? I think that’s the old-fashioned stair-rods showing, brass ones like they used to have. That’s shameful. You’re not telling me a science teacher couldn’t have afforded to splash out on fitted carpets?

Mr. Berridge slips in past me, and I notice he leaves me to shut the door behind us, thank you very much. Born in a field, as my mum used to say. Not that shutting the door has made a scrap of difference to the cold. If anything, its colder indoors than it was outside and there’s that smell, the smell of other people’s houses. With the better sort of residences you don’t notice it, they all just smell of Glade or something, mine does, but in poorer people’s houses you can smell all the fish fingers and the dirty socks going back years, like it’s accumulated in the furniture. I try the light-switch in the hall, but nothing happens. I doubt that the council would cut somebody’s electric off so soon after they’d died, so probably what happened was he hadn’t paid his bill. I think it’s better if I hurry things along a bit, get to the business, so to speak. I don’t want to spend too long here.

‘Well, now, this is very atmospheric, Mr. Berridge. Very atmospheric. I can almost feel Dennis’s presence, as if he were right here next to me. I sense that he’s concerned about you, worried that you’re suffering needlessly over his death. He’s saying that he doesn’t want you to be hurt.’

I angle up the torch-beam from where it’s been playing over the unappetising wallpaper and the chipped skirting board and there they are, the goofy teeth and mournful smile as he considers.

‘Yes, that sounds like Dennis. We were always ever so protective of each other, being twins. If either of us were in any trouble or had someone picking on them, then the other would be on it like a ton of bricks. Dennis particularly. Out of us two, Dennis was always the bloody-minded one.’

Why am I not surprised? Anyone who can fume for pages about chiropractors and the like is hardly likely to be someone normal who just lets things go. I’m frankly glad I never met him. He sounds like a nightmare.

‘He sounds like a lovely, very caring man. Just let me ask you, was there a possession or an object Dennis was especially attached to, something I could touch? I find it often makes the contact stronger, that’s all. It could be a favourite pair of slippers or a record he was fond of. Literally, it could be anything. Just something so I can make a connection with him.’

There’s the smile again. It’s probably the torchlight bouncing round this narrow passageway, but it looks almost pitying, or even condescending. Oh, it’s very cold in here. It’s icy.

‘Well, if you want something so you can connect with Dennis, I think if I popped upstairs a minute I might come back with the very thing. Go in the living room and make yourself at home.’

He turns and walks towards the stairs, then he looks back at me, and...no. No, his voice is very faint and I can hardly make it out. He’s asking if I’d like...don’t know. A cuppa? Is he offering to make a cup of tea? I shake my head, smiling politely.

‘No, no, I’ll be fine. You go ahead and I’ll wait in the living room.’

He turns and walks up the stairs very casually for saying there’s no lights on, although obviously he’s more familiar with the place than I am. I’m guessing he’s spent a lot of time here.

I push the door open and I sweep my torch around the living room. God, this is a depressing little hole for somebody to spend their final years in. There’s three bookshelves, mostly science and science-fiction from the look of it, and there’s no television. Two sagging armchairs with one each side of an old three-bar fire. I’ve not seen one of them in years. Upstairs I can hear Mr. Berridge walking back and forth as he looks for whatever piece of sentimental tat he’s going to bring back down for me to go into my Vulcan mind-meld with. It’ll be Richard Dawkins’ autograph, I shouldn’t wonder. If he’s going to be a while then I suppose I could risk sitting on one of the chairs and rest my feet after that walking. I hope he’s not long. It’s 25 to nine already and I’m going to miss the start of Q.I. unless Mr. Berridge gets a move on. Sitting in the dark like this, well, it’s not how I like to spend my Friday evenings, put it that way.

Oh, hang on, there was that call I had when I was just locking the front door, wasn’t there? While Charley-Boy’s upstairs having a weep over his brother’s keepsakes I can at least check on that and see if there’s another client in the pipeline. Honestly, my fingers, fishing out the bootee with the iPhone in from my coat pocket, they’re half-frozen. If it gets much colder they’ll be falling off.

Dialling the number and the suffix that connects me to the answer-phone takes age. Clump-clump-clump upstairs, the footsteps through the ceiling. Thinking back, it didn’t sound like ‘cuppa’, what he offered me when he was just about to go up. It was more like ‘phantom’ or a word like that, except that doesn’t make...ah! Here we are. The girl’s voice tells me I was called at eight o’clock and then there’s the long pause before it plays the message.

Fanta. That’s what he said. ‘Ricky? Would you like a Fanta?’ But why should he...

‘Mr. Sullivan? I’m sorry, this is David Berridge. Listen, I’ve been talking to my wife and, well, I’m sorry, I’ve had second thoughts about coming to see you. I don’t think it’s anything that the departed would have wanted. I’m sorry to cancel the appointment and I hope I haven’t, like, put you about or anything. Anyway, thanks again, and sorry. Um, you take care. Bye. Bye....’

What? Is this...is he playing a trick or something, calling from upstairs, just some mean joke to make me...no, he didn’t call. It’s me who called, what am I thinking? It’s the landline, isn’t it? The landline at my house. I called and it said eight o’clock and he was with me then, outside my gate. There must be, I don’t know, there must be something that explains this, calm down, Ricky, something I’ve not thought of, and in just a minute I’ll be laughing at how daft I am. Because if David Berridge, if he rang at eight to call it off, if he’s still sat at home, then...

Up above me on the landing there’s a creak. Somebody’s coming down the stairs. I’m sorry.

I’m so sorry.

The cover of Dodgem Logic 7, illustrated by Kevin O'NeillAlan Moore's Dodgem Logic has been colliding ideas to see what happens since November 2009. It's bi-monthly, and contributors include Stewart Lee, Josie Long, Graham Linehan, Robin Ince, Kevin O'Neill, Melinda Gebbie, Steve Aylett and many more. To find out more visit the Dodgem Logic website, where you can buy the latest issue, as well as back issues and merchandise.

See Alan Moore talking backstage at Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, 2009.

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