Category Archives: Non-Fiction

Great White by James Woodford – Extract


In May 2010, 250 kilometres offshore from the Queensland city of Mackay on the outside of the Great Barrier Reef, at a reef system known as the Swains, I was diving with a team of researchers when we were enveloped in a swarm of billions of small fish. The cloud of life was thick in the clear water, blocking out the sun. It was the kind of spectacle that sometimes plays out on television nature documentary footage shot from helicopters, yet this was real – I was in the water inside a baitball that stretched as far as I could see in every direction. There are times when you are scuba diving that you see the stunning things you expect to see, and then there are the occasions when something happens that you never thought was possible. The living cloud dancing and shimmering around me seemed like a magical illusion set in crystal water, a canvas of coral –a storm front of fish. There were so many teeming millions of them they were like huge droplets of rain being driven sideways yet moving as one. Eventually, though, the cloud passed and continued its rolling, morphing journey through the sea.

Amongst the beauty of the reef, it was often easy to forget that it is an ecosystem and that as well as wonders, there are many dangers. Such a cloud of fish is not referred to as a baitball for no reason – the little fish attract birds, marine mammals and bigger fish, which invariably attract those even bigger fish at the top of the marine food chain. In the past when I had dived on the reef and seen something scary it had been a furtive, uncertain feeling on the edge of my peripheral vision – a fast flash of something big that was often gone before I could be sure whether I had really seen it. The reality is this: nearly everyone who dives frequently in the ocean almost never sees one of the recognised shark species that are known to be dangerous to humans. After hundreds of dives, probably the most dangerous shark I had seen to that point on the Great Barrier Reef was a lemon shark in the lagoon of One Tree Island, off Gladstone. So what happened in the wake of the cloud of baitfish passing was a shock. As my dive buddy and I collected our coral samples for a scientific study being conducted by the Australian Institute of Marine Science, a huge bull shark slid by, only a few metres away. It was a very large fish and easily the biggest and most intimidating, dangerous shark I had ever been near. It really did feel as though we were suddenly in the wrong part of town – on the ocean side of the Barrier Reef you enter the environment of the biggest pelagic sharks. The bull shark was in no hurry and, slowly, lazily swam away. After exchanging some concerned hand signals, geneticist and close friend Petra Lundgren and I continued working. A few seconds later the ball of baitfish returned, only this time they were frantically fleeing, chased by giant trevally. In turn the trevally were being hotly pursued by half a dozen bull sharks. Now there was nothing lazy about the way the two and three metre predators were moving – they were at a full blistering pace, only swerving around us divers at the last second. It was like standing in a field as a pride of lions pelted past, hunting antelope. It wasn’t that we were invisible to the sharks – I had a sense, a really strong sense, they knew we were there – it was just that they were not interested in us. Even so, my instinct was to join the crush trying to escape. I remember wondering, what do you do in a situation like this. Should I act like I would in the face of a dangerous dog on dry land? Should I pull out my dive knife as I always imagined I would if I was faced by a big shark? In the end there was nothing I could do. But I did feel that I was in the crossfire of a fight that was not mine and so in a strange way, while all the players knew we humans were there, we were also afforded some immunity. It is true that bull sharks are regarded as ‘maneaters’ but what was baffling that morning was that if we really were a favoured target then why weren’t we eaten?

I realised that a lot of what I thought about sharks – and so a lot of what most people think about sharks – is actually wrong. I am a child of the 1970s and my whole view of what would happen if I ever came face to face with a big shark at the bottom of the ocean was informed by the following words from the trailer of the movie Jaws, a deep authoritative voice-over with its unforgettable musical score as a background: ‘It is as if God created the devil and gave him . . . jaws.’ But at that moment in the sea off Mackay, I knew that all this time I’d been had. There was a lot more going on than I understood and a fact that I had held as fundamental – that big sharks are always dangerous to people – was wrong. In fact once I began researching what happened to me that day I found that my experience of being ignored was not unique and is well recorded in the scientific literature. World leading expert on attitudes and public policy towards sharks, Christopher Neff, who normally confines his comments to well-thought  out academic writing, puts it bluntly: ‘We are not prey, we are in the way.’ More formally, in his peer-reviewed writing, he explains it like this:

 Observations of sharks in proximity to human swimmers in the ocean demonstrate that the animals do not usually take an interest in people. Sightings by New South Wales Fisheries staff, including Vic Peddemors and Amy Smoothey, have revealed that bull sharks regularly swim close to hundreds of human swimmers in Sydney Harbour and ignore them all. In Cape Town, South Africa, the Shark Spotters program has reviewed more than 1,100 sightings of white sharks swimming around surfers and near bathers Bathers were alerted and got out of the water, and the visiting sharks swam away. This story repeats itself in Port Stephens, Australia, where shark biologist Barry Bruce has studied juvenile white sharks that consistently ignore people in the nearby surf.

Very few humans have an encounter like the one that I had, and for those that do, the overwhelming majority do not get bitten. And it wasn’t my first close encounter with a bull shark. At dusk a few years earlier, swimming on the south coast of New South Wales, with a friend in chest-deep surf, a two-metre long shadow tore through the breakers between us and vanished before we had a chance to even think about fleeing to the shore. I remember thinking two things at the time. First, if it had wanted to eat us we wouldn’t have stood a chance and, second, it didn’t want to eat us. On both occasions I was a huge piece of protein beside any of the fish being hotly pursued. I was a sitting duck, practically immobile compared to the fish tearing for their lives through the sea. Diving off the Swains with Petra, there was no choice but to watch, transfixed, as one of the bull sharks sped past me. It specifically seemed to see me, caught my eye and pressed on. At that moment I was utterly vulnerable. There wasn’t time to take any kind of evasive action and the idea of attempting to flee in the face of so many creatures a thousand times faster than me was just ridiculous. More than anything I was surprised because what had happened was so much more complicated and interesting and impressive than what every Australian is raised to believe about sharks. Still, we exited the water off the Swains Reef quickly rather than take the chance that they might become more interested in us in a second pass . . . As I gratefully pulled my legs onto the inflatable my mind was racing. What did that shark think when it saw me? What kind of animal was a creature like that? Soon afterwards, there was a horrific spate of shark attacks in Western Australia, and each time another person was killed, my mind went back to that day underwater and far out to sea, when the bull shark and I locked eyes. I also remember thanking God there were no white sharks in the tropics because otherwise things would have turned out very differently . . . wouldn’t they? I was wrong again.

I quickly discovered that it could just as easily have been white sharks in the water that day instead of bull sharks. Beginning at Christmas 2011, not long after my encounter at the Swains, the CSIRO tracked a 3.1 metre female white shark via satellite as it completed a mighty six-month return journey from 90 Mile Beach in Victoria to the Swains Reef, off Central Queensland, where I had seen the bull sharks.

Also around that time I was on a family holiday at Lady Elliott Island at the very southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, further south than the Swains Reef. As I prepared for my first dive off the island, the dive master said that the previous week they had been on a wreck a few hundred metres offshore when a large great white had suddenly appeared. But, as in my experience with the bull sharks, it showed no interest in eating anyone and after some curious investigation casually turned tail and disappeared. It was one thing for a bull shark to decide to leave me in one piece, but why would a great white shark leave those juicy, defenceless divers alone? After all, the great white shark is the most magnificent and supposedly dangerous of them all.

This was the second time in my life that white sharks had gotten snagged in my consciousness. The first had been in the early 1990s when I was a cub science and environment correspondent at the Sydney Morning Herald. While there, two books came across my desk that I felt compelled to keep. The first was an original edition of Peter Matthiessen’s book The Snow Leopard that I requested from the office library for a profile interview I was preparing of the world-famous author. For some reason his expedition in search of the Himalayan big cat resonated through my bones and soul as if someone had struck a huge bell. It took a decade-long campaign by the newspaper’s librarians, and finally a threat to have all my borrowing rights revoked, before

I returned The Snow Leopard. I still rue the day I gave it back. The second book was actually a review copy of a coffee table paperback called Great White Shark by Richard Ellis and John McCosker. Somehow I managed to convince my boss to let me borrow it from him and I never gave it back. The night I first got it I lay in my bed at home and could not put it down.

It was captivating – anecdote after anecdote, scientific insights, personal stories, facts, breakouts, stunning historical pictures including the huge jaws of the white shark relative Carcharodon megalodon, which are on display at the Smithsonian Institution – jaws so enormous that six dapper fish scientists are framed by the reconstructed model of a Megalodon’s jaws. But there was one page that seared itself into my mind forever – an account of an attack by a great white shark in 1962 at the Farallon Islands off San Francisco, where Al Giddings and Leroy French, partners in a dive company, had taken a group of divers. Before pulling up anchor Giddings did a head count and realised French was not on board. He looked out to see French in the jaws of a great white shark. Revisiting the exact site later, Giddings recounted to McCosker:

I saw a great tail come up over Leroy’s head, behind him. He couldn’t see it but he could see reflected in my eyes the terror and total amazement and could hear the rush of water behind him. And, of course, he had already been hit once, so he knew it was coming again. Before my unbelieving eyes, the tail went up and then went down alongside him. [Leroy] disappeared and was gone. I continued to the spot where he had disappeared, and as I was looking around frantically, he popped up next to me, clawing, spitting an screaming in a way that I would not have thought humanly possible. Somehow I swam behind him, turned him on his back, and took off with him.

Miraculously, the pair made it to the boat, covered in blood. French was evacuated by helicopter and required 450 stitches. But two years later he was walking again. The blood, the violence, the strength of the fish, the courage of the rescuer and friend were all the stuff of white shark bite stories the world over. What haunted me was the fact that the victim knew the shark was attacking from behind because of the expression on the rescuer’s face. Imagine what that face must have looked like. And imagine what it must be like to have been bitten once and then to see the terror in the rescuer’s eyes. It was one of the most horrifying things that I had ever heard and I cannot imagine how Leroy’s certainty that the shark was on its way back, without actually seeing it, must have felt. And it was a moment like that I was braced for when we were stampeded by bull sharks. When it never came, I was left with a thousand questions.

This is a story about a fish – from the tips of its teeth to the end of its tail. It has the body of a torpedo, the jaws of a bear trap, the stomach of a wheelie bin, the power of a truck, eyes as big as billiard balls and a brain smaller than the top of the thumb of most men. It emerged from a lineage predating dinosaurs and its personality has the ill-deserved reputation of being somewhere between a psychopath and a member of an outlaw motorcycle gang. It is the subject of countless urban myths regarding its obsession with eating humans – from being able to detect urine from kilometres away to flipping to rogue after a single taste of human flesh. The simple fact is that each and every white shark is a rogue shark. Rogue is their permanent state of being and they are always dangerous. They are dangerous not because of what they usually do but because of what they can do when they make a mistake. They are everything that is both terrible and wonderful about life and food chains and oceans and primal power. They are what happens when time, chemistry, engineering, physics and competition to survive in the world’s harshest environments strive to build the planet’s most perfect fish predator.

A great white shark is evolution’s Manhattan Project.


House of Karls by Dr Karl Kruszelnicki – Extract


Today there are many diets available to anybody wanting to lose some weight – some might say too many. One current favourite is the so-called “Paleolithic Diet”.

In a nutshell, it claims that our Paleolithic hunter–gatherer ancestors lived in wondrous harmony with their environment, which gave them exactly the food they needed to live a long and happy life. This sweet congruence came to an unhappy end with the development of agriculture and grain-based diets. Furthermore, the Paleo Diet claims that the period of 12,000 years or so since we invented agriculture is far too short for our bodies to have evolved to cope with the new foods that agriculture has given us.

In other words, the key to a healthy and long life is to abandon our modern agricultural diets and eat what our Paleolithic ancestors ate.

But this claim is false – and has no basis in dietetic, evolutionary or archaeological reality.

What Is the Paleo Diet?

The Paleo Diet is also called the Stone Age Diet, and the Hunter–Gatherer Diet.

It was first promoted by the gastroenterologist Walter L. Voegtlin in the mid-1970s. He argued that we humans are carnivores (wrong), and that our Paleolithic ancestors ate a carnivore’s diet (wrong again). Therefore, he claimed, our diet should be meat and fat, with tiny amounts of carbohydrates.

The Diet was re-invented by S. Boyd Eaton and Melvin Konner in 1985. They called it the

“Evolutionary Discordance Hypothesis”. This Diet is based on grass-fed, pasture-raised meat and poultry, as well as seafood, along with some fruit, green vegetables, eggs, nuts, roots and fungi. Sounds quite reasonable. It also advocates excluding dairy, grains, legumes, potatoes or processed oils. Less reasonable – I love them all, especially olive oil!

It also excludes refined salt and refined sugar. It’s an excellent idea to minimise consuming lots of refined sugar, but what about the occasional birthday cake?


The Paleo Diet has major problems at every possible level – from theoretical to practical.

First, our ancestors ate many very different varieties of Paleolithic Diets. There was no one single Paleo Diet for all the humans across our planet.

Second, we humans actually have done a lot of evolving in the last 12,000 years. That includes evolution in regard to what we can eat.

Third, we can’t eat what our Paleolithic ancestors ate anyway – because most of that stuff is not around any more.

And fourth, the recommended Paleolithic Diet is way out of kilter with what dieticians currently recommend.


“Paleolithic” literally means “Stone Age”. The Paleolithic era spans a period from around 2.5 million years ago, right up until the development of agriculture some 12,000 years ago. (I discuss Agriculture in my 17th book, Flying Lasers, Robofish and Cities of Slime.)

When people started writing books about the Paleolithic Diet back in the 1970s, we had only a very vague idea of what our Stone Age ancestors ate. (Yup, the original writers advocating Paleolithic Diets were far more like “creative writers” than “factual writers”.) We did have hints of a bias towards a diet focused on meat. For example, we have found paintings, some 17,300 years old, inside the Lascaux Cave in the Dordogne region of France. They show animals, and people hunting animals. They don’t show any agricultural fields. But since then our anthropologists and archaeologists have looked at fireplaces, middens (dunghills or refuse tips), the actual teeth of t our Paleolithic ancestors, and even the tools used to prepare their meals.

It turns out that they ate a highly varied diet. Cereals and grains are forbidden in the Paleolithic Diet. But we know for sure that our ancestors ate them. The evidence for this came from examining dental plaque an wear marks on their teeth, as well as the tools they used to process food.

And was there one single Paleolithic Diet, right across the planet?

Did everyone eat the same meal in what we now call Africa and Europe, the Americas, Asia and Australia? “No” from common sense, and “no” from what our archaeologists and anthropologists have found.

We see an incredible spread in the diets of some of the so-called “primitive” peoples. The Inuit of the Arctic get 99 per cent of their calories from meat, while the !Kung people of Africa eat around 12 per cent meat. That’s a huge range. They definitely don’t eat the same identical meal.

What Do Dieticians Say?

A 2011 report involving 22 experts rated 20 diets. Based on factors such as health, ease of following and weight loss, the Paleo Diet came last. In 2012, it tied for last place with the Dukan Diet for the lowest rating – 29th out of 29 diets.

To complete its losing streak, in 2014, Paleo tied for last place (32nd out of 32) with the Dukan Diet.


Another cornerstone of the Paleolithic Diet Creed is that our bodies could not possibly have evolved fast enough in the last 12,000 years to accommodate our new foods.

We have very solid evidence (for example, from their teeth) that 30,000 years ago some of our ancestors were already eating grainsand legumes.

Indeed, the promulgators of the Diet claim that our genes haven’t changed for 50,000 years. This is so very wrong. Evolution can be quite quick on the uptake. In the last 7000 years, about one third of us have evolved to be able to drink milk when we grow into adults (see story on “Lactose Intolerance” on page 151). There are 6000-year-old rock paintings of people herding domestic cattle in the Jebel Acacus region of the Sahara Desert in Libya. Seven thousand years is definitely less than 12,000 years!

Still concentrating on food, some of us have evolved extra copies of the amylase enzyme so that we can more easily digest starches. Furthermore, some Japanese have evolved special bacteria in their guts that can digest seaweed – so sushi is no trouble at all. (See “The Stranger Within” in my 31st book, Brain Food.)

Moving away from evolution related to food, some of us have evolved blue eyes (6000 to 10,000 years ago). Others among us, in Africa, evolved resistance to malaria (5000 to 10,000 years ago).

Consider the challenge of living at high altitudes. Three separate groups of humans living in Tibet, the Andes and in Ethiopia have evolved three different methods of dealing with low oxygen. So, yes, our bodies could easily evolve fast enough in 12,000 years to accommodate new foods. In fact, they have.

Weight Loss? One of the claims of the Paleo Diet is that it triggers the production of hormones that then suppress hunger. In turn, this would produce the desired weight loss – the whole point of any Fad Diet. Researchers found this to be incorrect. The hunger-suppressing hormones are not triggered by the diet.


The third problem with the Paleolithic Diet is that the food eaten back then is simply not around any more. We have transformed the meat and plant species we eat through millennia of artificial selection and evolution.

If you look at what comes from today’s food animals, very few meats are as lean as those our Paleolithic ancestors ate. Indeed, many of the larger food animals have gone. There are no more mammoths or moas, and the last auroch (a super-large cow) died in Poland in 1627. However, kangaroo meat is pretty lean.

Today’s corn started off as a straggly skinny grass in Central America, while tomatoes used to be tiny berries. Bananas were mostly filled with seeds until a recent mutation (discussed in my 24th book, Disinformation). Consider cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and kale: they might look wildly different today, but they are each cultivars of one single species, Brassica oleracea.

Modern versions of the Paleo Diet recognise that foods have changed, and allow domesticated animal meat and cultivated plants. S. Boyd Eaton and Melvin Konner have recently “adjusted” their 1985 version of the Paleo Diet to allow whole grains and low-fat dairy products.


The fourth problem with the Paleolithic Diet is its nutritional aspects.

The core recommendation of the Diet is a high protein intake – 19 to 35 per cent of a person’s daily energy. This is quite a lot higher than the Australian Nutrient Reference Values suggestion of 15 to 25 per cent. Indeed, diets rich in meat are associated with higher rates of heart disease. The Paleolithic Diet also recommends a moderate to high intake of fat – again, not recommended by modern dieticians.

The Diet advises not to eat any whole grains. However, we have very solid evidence (for example, from their teeth) that 30,000 years ago some of our ancestors were already eating grains and legumes.

But, on the plus side, the Paleolithic Diet advises against eating processed foods with added salt, sugars and flavourings – entirely sensible. It also recommends fibre from vegetables and fruit – an excellent suggestion.


The Paleo Diet relies on the underlying fantasy that, if we simply follow it, we’ll change from a balding, pot-bellied man slouched in front of a computer into a tall, well-muscled man with perfect teeth, an artfully placed fur loincloth and a spear.

Sure, sitting all day is not good for you. (I recently changed over to a desk that adjusts from standing to sitting.) But our gut is perfectly adequate for many different diets. After all, meat eaters, vegetarians and vegans can all be very healthy.

Our digestive system has adapted to eat most foods. Our mouths are equipped with the teeth of both carnivores and herbivores – we can tear meat with our canines, and we can grind fibrous plants with our molars. The gut that runs between our mouth and anus is totally different from a straight line (the shortest distance between two points). Instead, it’s about 10 metres long. It’s not the short gut of a carnivore. Neither does it have the multi-stomach fermentation chambers of a grass-eating herbivore. It’s in between.

Gregor Yanega, a professor of biology at Pacific University in Oregon, has said, “Our guts are special because they are less specialised. They can accommodate so many changes in the foods that surround us, can accommodate unusual abundance and a certain amount of scarcity: we can even eat some of the world’s more difficult foodstuffs: grains, leaves and plants. Berries, nuts, meats, sugars, those are easy. Eating them together is pretty rare.”

Maybe we should forget Fad Diets, and just remember Michael Pollan’s simpler and more useful advice: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Silk Road by Eileen Ormsby – Extract

9781742614090A Word from the Dread Pirate Roberts

Greetings and welcome to Silk Road!

I know you can’t wait to get to the good stuff, but please take a moment to read this message. It’s been written to help keep you safe, make the most of your time here and let you know what this is all about.

Let’s start with the name. The original Silk Road was an old-world trade network that connected Asia, Africa and Europe. It played a huge role in connecting the economies and cultures of these continents and promoted peace and prosperity through trade agreements. It is my hope that this modern Silk Road can do the same thing, by providing a framework for trading partners to come together for mutual gain in a safe and secure way.

You may be shocked to find listings here that are outlawed in your jurisdiction. That doesn’t mean Silk Road is lawless. In fact, we have a very strict code of conduct that, if given a chance, most people I think would agree with. Our basic rules are to treat others as you would wish to be treated, mind your own business, and don’t do anything to hurt or scam someone else. In the spirit of those rules, there are some things you will never see here, and if you do please report them. They include child pornography, stolen goods, assassinations and stolen personal information, just to name a few. We also hold our members to the highest standards of personal conduct and work tirelessly to prevent, root out and stop any scammers that may try to prey upon others.

However, the best way to stay safe and make sure your experiences here are enjoyable is to educate yourself on how Silk Road works, and take advantage of all the tools and guidelines we have made for you. A link to a complete guide can be found on your account page, but here are a few tips to get you started:

• Always use the escrow system! This can’t be stressed enough. 99% per cent of scams are from people who set up fake vendor accounts and ask buyers to pay them directly or release payment before their order arrives. This behav-iour should be reported immedi ately. If you do choose to do this, we will be completely unable to help you in the event of fraud.

• Read the forum and the wiki. They contain a wealth of information and many in our forum community are eager to help a new member with a respectful attitude.

• Start small. Do a few small trades until you are comfort-able with the process before throwing all of your bitcoins at a big purchase.

The old saying ‘With freedom comes responsibility’ couldn’t be more true here. You will find easy access to things that could get you in trouble with your authorities and are downright terrible for your health. So, just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

However, I’m not your daddy and it’s your job to judge what is good and bad for you. No one else can do that. Stay safe, have fun, and come say hi on the forums!

Your faithful servant,

Dread Pirate Roberts – ‘A Word from the Dread Pirate Roberts’ from the landing screen of the Silk Road website


The computer screen displays a bewildering array of drugs.

Colourful pictures of powders and pills in various quantities offer inducements to buy: Border-proof delivery! Ten per cent extra on orders over 5 grams! Underneath each picture is a price, using an unfamiliar currency symbol. Scrolling down the green-and-white page, a potential customer might click on heroin from Canada, crystal meth from Australia or LSD from the Czech Republic. Once a choice is made, another click would add them to the checkout basket, ready to be shipped. Just like on Amazon. In the top left-hand corner of the screen a strange symbol –like a capital B with two lines through it, reminiscent of an American dollar sign – displays the user’s account balance in bitcoin.

A German seller calling himself ‘Jurgen2000’ is offering MDMA, the powder form of ecstasy. Clicking on the listing reveals  Jurgen has a great reputation. His feedback is full of praise for his prices, quality and delivery times.

A savvy Silk Road user uses PGP (‘pretty good privacy’) encryption to encrypt the delivery address to Jurgen. Once installed, with a couple of clicks PGP can change any block of text into a long para-graph of indecipherable gibberish that will be unreadable to all but Jurgen, who will have the private key to crack the code to return it to normal text. Anyone who managed to seize the Silk Road servers would not be able to get the buyer’s name and address from that order. Not even the Silk Road administrators could unscramble the information.

Within a few hours of an order being placed, Jurgen marks the delivery as ‘in transit’ and sends the buyer a cheery message saying that the order is on its way. ‘Please,’ Jurgen writes, ‘if there is any problem, send me a message before complaining to admin or in the forums. We should be able to work it out without the need to go to resolution.’ Depending on where you are in the world from Jurgen, a few days later a nondescript white envelope bearing a German post-mark and the return address of a real estate agent arrives. Folded within a couple of pieces of paper that are blank except for ‘1M’ typed on one of them, is a vacuum-sealed pack of a brown–white powder. The buyer tests the ecstasy – either using a reagent purity-testing kit, or the old-fashioned way: ingesting it. Then it is a matter of logging in to the site through Tor, the program that provides anonymity, and finalising the order by releasing the funds from escrow into Jurgen’s account. The site then ask the buyer for feedback, and Jurgen always gets five out of five.

He’s a polite seller on the other side of the world, eager to provide good service to ensure he maintain his five-star rating and receives repeat custom. Welcome to a new era of drug dealing.

Part One


Silk Road Charter

Silk Road is a global enterprise whose purpose is to empower people to live as free individuals. We provide systems and platforms that allow our customers to defend their basic human rights and pursue their own ends, provided those ends do not infringe on the rights of others.

Our mission is to have voluntary interaction between individuals be the foundation of human civilization.

We conduct ourselves and our enterprise from the following fundamental values that are at the heart of who we are: Self-ownership

Individuals own their bodies, thoughts and will. Anything they create with their property or obtain without coercion is also theirs.


People are responsible for their actions. If one infringes on another’s rights, the victim has the right to defend themselves.


Property rights apply to all individuals equally, without exception.


Honoring one’s word as one’s self. Word, thought, and action are aligned.


Striving to improve one’s self and the lives of others in all actions. To create value.

We promise to be true to our purpose, to accomplish our mission, to operate consistent with our values, and to run our enterprise in service of our customers.

This is who we are.

This is what you can count on.

– Silk Road website

I began working on a project that had been in my mind for over a year. I was calling it Underground Brokers, but eventually settled on Silk Road. The idea was to create a website where people could buy anything anonymously, with no trail whatso-ever that could lead back to them.

– Dread Pirate Roberts journal entry, 2010

Taking Drug Deals Off the Street

Drug deals can be problematic for recreational users. The pills may not contain the substances they are supposed to, the powders may be cut with toxic matter. The quality can vary wildly from purchase to purchase and there is no ombudsman to complain to in the case of being ripped off. The dealer might be a shady character who reacts violently when things go wrong.

Sam Tyler, a thirty-something Sydneysider, relayed a familiar story about his weekend. He’d wanted some ecstasy for a night out and visited a friend-of-a-friend dealer he’d used twice before.

‘I arranged to pick up a couple of green mitzis [ecstasy tablets stamped with a Mitsubishi logo],’ Sam said. ‘But when I got there, they’d run out of them and gave me these other ones, yellow Russians, which they said were just as good.’ Although he would have preferred to research the other pills before commit-ting his $70, dealers could get pissed off when customers left empty-handed.

‘When I got home, I checked them out on Pillreports [a website on which users provide feedback on pills available in their area],’ Sam said. ‘Flashed up red. Fuckin’ pipes.’ ‘Pipes’, or piperazines, are a family of drug with vaguely similar effects to ecstasy, but that are generally considered far less desirable and have more adverse side effects.

Ten years ago Sam would have swallowed them anyway – they could be a different batch. But at his age he wasn’t prepared to risk the headaches and vomiting pipes gave him after a far less pleas-urable experience than he enjoyed with MDMA. He knew it was pointless going back to the dealer. He also knew it was likely he would find himself there again if the local ecstasy scene stayed the way it was.

Despite the risks, recreational drug use continues to rise globally, with the illegal drug trade turning over hundreds of billions of dollars per year. Sam’s story is a common one faced by recreational users – by the time they hit the street, drugs are so far removed from the manufacturing source that it is impossible to determine how often they have been cut with foreign substances or even whether they are what they are advertised to be. A few years ago people began to wonder if there wasn’t an alternative to the traditional face-to-face drug deal. Where better to turn than the place where more and more people were spending the bulk of their time – the internet.

Online markets for illegal drugs were not a new phenomenon.

The late 1990s saw the emergence of private mailing lists, such as The Hive (which developed cult status) and the Research Chemical Mailing List. Many of the participants were part of the Cypherpunk movement that had commenced in the early nineties, in which expert cryptographers combined computer skills with their interest in philosophy and politics. Privacy of information was at the heart of their cause.

In the early 2000s, there was a group of sites selling research chemicals that became known as the ‘Web Tryp sites’, named after the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) operation that eventually closed them down. There were also dozens of private email lists and web pages where information was traded clandestinely between members after trust was established. Although some information was available publicly to those who could find the sites, deals were made via private messages and emails between those in the loop. A drug user could access drugs this way only by word of mouth.

But the problem was always the same: money transfers over the web were traceable, and it was difficult to build trust with potential customers. Payment had to be made by credit card, cash in the mail or Western Union. There was no security for buyers or sellers from being scammed by each other, and anonymity could be easily compromised once the sites were discovered by the authorities.

The Silk Road story began at the end of 2010, when a young computer user and magic mushroom and marijuana aficionado imagined a market where willing buyers would be able to meet willing sellers and conduct their business in a safe, fair, violence-free environment. That business would be drugs and substances that were illegal in almost every jurisdiction in the world. He wanted to provide more than just a marketplace – he wanted to provide an environment of trust and exceptional customer service, based on the platform forged by popular legitimate e-commerce websites.

Three key emerging technologies could make this possible: Tor, a program that enabled anonymous web hosting and browsing; PGP encryption, which could scramble communications between users; and bitcoin, a borderless digital currency that existed only in cyberspace, which could be used to transfer funds with no identification of the parties required.

After considering and discarding other names, the budding drug czar settled on calling the website ‘Silk Road’ – a nod to the ancient Asian trade route that promoted cultural interaction between the East and the West by linking traders and merchants to buyers. The site’s symbol would be a green camel, camel trains being the common method of transport in trans-Asian trade.

The difference between Silk Road and previous online black markets was a system of consumer protection. This involved an escrow system, whereby rather than trust the seller implicitly, the buyer would send the payment to the owner of the website, who would hold on to it in custody until the buyer confirmed that they had received the goods as described. The buyer would then release the funds, from which the website would skim a commission before passing the payment to the seller. A further layer of protection came by the feedback system: the buyer could rate the seller out of five and make comments regarding speed, communication, packaging and security (‘stealth’), and quality of product.

This, of course, was nothing new in the world of online commerce. But in the world of black markets it was mind- blowingly revolutionary.

Silk Road’s owner was no computer infrastructure whiz. He struggled to figure out how to set the site up, and nearing the end of 2010 despaired that he still didn’t have a site, let alone a server. He asked questions on technical forums and tinkered with his idea until, eventually, he had the genesis of an anonymous online black market.

But first, the owner-operator of this new black market needed something to sell. He set up a lab in a cabin ‘off the grid’ where he produced several kilos of high-quality psilocybin mushrooms, also known as magic mushrooms, a popular psychedelic. Now he had a marketplace and he had a product. It was time to find the customers. That wouldn’t be hard. The internet was rife with websites where like-minded people got together to talk about getting high.

Silk Road entered the world with little fanfare sometime in early 2011. Its beginnings remain hazy; many of its digital footprints have been eradicated from the web, whether by those involved in Silk Road or by the owners of the websites where the messages sat – it’s not always easy to tell.

The early evidence pointed to Silk Road testing the waters earlier on 4chan, an anonymous discussion group favoured by hackers and ‘carders’ (people who steal and use credit-card information for personal gain). Based on similar Japanese communities involved in manga and anime, 4chan is home to various subcul-tures and online activists, with users attracted by its anonymity and lack of censorship on posted content. It has been credited with being the genesis of hacktivist collective Anonymous.

‘I first saw Silk Road . . . on 4chan in December 2010,’ said Silk Road’s first-ever moderator, ‘Nomad Bloodbath’. ‘At that time I just saw it as another scam.’

The earliest hard evidence to be found of the genesis of Silk Road was a posting on Shroomery. Established in 1997, Shroomery is a leading website for information about magic mushrooms. The owner of Silk Road had magic mushrooms to sell so on 28 January 2011, a new forum member calling themselves ‘altoid’ registered on the Shroomery forums and wrote: I came across this website called Silk Road. It’s a Tor hidden service that claims to allow you to buy and sell anything online anonymously. I’m thinking of buying off it, but wanted to see if anyone here had heard of it and could recommend it.

I found it through, which, if you have a tor browser, directs you to the real site at http://tydgccykixpbu6uz.onion.

Let me know what you think . . .

The gobbledygook site address, ending in .onion, was an indica-tion that the site was one of those anonymously hosted by Tor. Sites hosted by Tor and other anonymity providers are colloquially known as the ‘dark web’. Sometime before April 2011, Silk Road’s address changed to ianxz6zefk72ulzz.onion. The WordPress site included a cheeky reference to ‘420’, slang for marijuana.

That was the only post ever made by altoid on the Shroomery forums, and the last time altoid logged on was 28 February 2011. The WordPress site the post referred to was a short, basic guide on how to access Silk Road. ‘This is not Silk Road, but you are close’ was the heading that greeted visitors. It explained how to download the technologies that would enable you to find and use the drug marketplace. Soon after-wards, WordPress closed the gateway and any attempts to access it returned an error message: ‘ is no longer available. This site has been archived or suspended for a violation of our Terms of Service.’

Altoid also registered and posted in the bitcoin discussion forums at Bitcoin at the time was a fledgling cryptocurrency, virtually worthless, and the forum’s members were debating whether it could be used to enable online commerce anonymously. Specifically, they were considering whether it was viable to facilitate buying and selling heroin. In a lengthy thread called ‘A Heroin Store’, on 29 January 2011 altoid (who had only registered that day) helpfully chimed in: What an awesome thread! You guys have a ton of great ideas.

Has anyone seen Silk Road yet? It’s kind of like an anonymous I don’t think they have heroin on there, but they are selling other stuff. They basically use bitcoin and tor to broker anonymous transactions. It’s at http://tydgccykixpbu6uz.onion. Those not familiar with Tor can go to for instructions on how to access the .onion site.Let me know what you guys think.

A suspicious reader might assume that altoid had more than a fan’s involvement in the site he or she was so keen to spruik. The only other early reference to Silk Road was from an apparent Silk Road seller calling himself ‘maxvendor’, who advertised his MDMA on, a website that allowed anonymous posting of news and gossip. ‘Buy from the Silk Road!’ the poster wrote on 12 February 2011 in a blatant advertisement for his ecstasy. ‘Ships stealth/vac sealed regular airmail. Pretty much the only guarantee in the online vending world going, also no way to prove you paid – all transactions are decentralized and anonymous.’ Maxvendor mentioned that payment would be made by bitcoin. Bitcoin is the preferred method of payment for goods and services on the dark web. Known as a ‘cryptocurrency’, it is a digital currency that uses cryptography for security. It exists only in cyberspace.

Online multiplayer games such as Second Life use a virtual currency that has value and can be exchanged for real things outside of the game. Bitcoin is similar, but far more sophisticated.

It wasn’t until 1 March 2011 that a thread brazenly and blatantly advertising Silk Road was started in the bitcoin forums by a user known as ‘silkroad’; the thread was called ‘Silk Road anonymous marketplace: feedback requested’. He stated: ‘Silk Road is into its third week after launch and I am very pleased with the results.

There are several sellers and buyers finding mutually agreeable prices, and as of today, 28 transactions have been made!’ The poster asked for feedback on his site, which he said had been in development for four months.

‘Thanks for this awesome idea, silkroad,’ wrote FTL_Ian, host of web-streaming talkback radio site Free Talk Live, on 17 March 2011. ‘I am so impressed, I promoted it on my national radio program tonight. Hope you don’t mind the publicity.’ On the program, he described Silk Road, the anonymity it provided and the escrow service, and cited the site as having 151 registered users, 38 listings and 28 transactions to date. The radio hosts enthused about the potential to remove violence from drug deals and other potential upsides of the site. ‘This is an example of something really useful.

This is a useful service. Allowing people to trade in whatever they want online completely anonymously . . . And you’ve got plausible deniability,’ they reported.

‘How cool!’ silkroad enthused. ‘How big is your audience?’

Silkroad’s thread grew to be one of the longest the Bitcointalk forum had ever seen. Members raised questions and expressed concerns that silkroad responded to with explanations of the technologies, the escrow system and his vision for a viable market.

Bitcointalk had a healthy membership made up of the kind of people who live for computers, technology and the new and innova-tive uses they can be put to. Many were drawn to Silk Road from a technical perspective, even if they had no interest in drugs.

For many, checking out the site for themselves was their first experience of the ‘dark web’. Host to all the sites that feature in contemporary horror movies or the cautionary tales of TV crime dramas, it is like the internet’s evil twin, unknown by many and accessed by few.

And drugs are about the least illegal things to be found inside the dark web.

Technology continues to empower buyers and extend the reach of sellers.

– Australian Crime Commission, Illicit Drug Data Report, 2011–2012

The Great War by Les Carlyon – Extract


Here dead lie we because we did not choose

To live and shame the land from which we sprung.

Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;

But young men think it is, and we were young.

– A. E. Housman

There were so many of them, more than three hundred thousand, and we never really saw them. Not when it mattered to see them anyway, not when they were doing the things that marked them as different, then and now, from the rest of us.

Here they are resting during a lull in one of the Somme battles, their boots sprinkled with white dust. Some drag on cigarettes, lumpy and hand-rolled. One daydreams and another, eyes big, face like a slab of marble, just stares, not at the landscape, not at the shell holes that sit lip to lip like sores, but at some panorama that exists only in his mind and now holds him prisoner. One re-reads a cutting that his mother has sent him from the Ballarat Courier.

Another scribbles with an indelible pencil worn so short that it needs to be gripped with the thumb and forefinger in a taut circle. He adds three or four lines to what he wrote the night before. It seems important to write things down. It makes the absurd seem real. You could see the German shells in the sky at the top of their arc. Others saw them too. And writing makes events seem less terrible. If you can write about them, they are at least imaginable.

One man, propped on his elbow, tries to doze, his helmet tilted over his eyes, a sprig of hair fluffing out one side. Another peers at the tear in his trousers as though it is a personal insult. The barbed wire has brought up a blood-stippled welt on his thigh. In this war it is nothing much. Some of the men’s faces carry the soft contours of youth but sometimes the eyes look older than the faces.

They are stretched out on the downs, these men, on those red-brown earths shot through with lumps of chalk, rich dirt, soft country, nothing like home. Back there the soils were thin and hun-gry, as if some earlier civilisation had worn them out and left, so that all the ground could push up now was scraggy gums. But at least Australian soils smelled sweet. They didn’t reek of explosives and wet sandbags and decomposing bodies that would swell up, then turn black and, if left, become huddles of khaki or grey that hid a jumble of bones, joined here and there by scraps of gristle and blown by the winter winds.

Anyone coming upon this group resting on the Somme would know at once that they were Australians. They had a look to them.

There was a lankiness, a looseness in the way they moved that was occasionally close to elegance but not quite soldierly. War and the old world of Europe had failed to impose all of its formalities on them. They were good at war but in a way that offended the keep-ers of the orthodoxies: lots of dash, not much discipline away from the battlefield. They were good at war but they didn’t want to stay in the army once the fighting ended. They were all volunteers. This was an interlude, not a career. When it was over they would go back to being commercial travellers and science teachers, farmers and bank clerks. In 1918 two architects, an orchardist and a gra-zier commanded four of the five Australian divisions. The corps commander, an engineer from a family of Jewish immigrants that had settled in Melbourne, also had degrees in law and arts, played the piano, sketched and wrote.

We, their kin and countrymen, didn’t see the Australians when they were roistering in the cafés of Poperinghe, behind the Belgian front, where vin blanc was rhymed into plonk and used to wash down eggs and chips. We didn’t see them when they sauntered around Horse Guards in London, eyes wide, because these were men from a land where the most ancient public buildings were little more than 100 years old and weren’t well loved anyway, since they belonged to a convict society that was best not talked about.

We didn’t see them queuing outside the theatres or riding in taxis, carelessly spending their pay, which was much higher than that of their British cousins. We didn’t see them watching the morning horsemanship in Hyde Park and smiling at the primness of it all.

These tourists wore slouch hats and woollen tunics that ballooned over their hips, partly because the pockets always seemed to be full of tins and pouches. They tended to be taller than Englishmen and used slang words that had no currency outside their homeland.

They seemed to be alive with the hopes of the New World and careless when it came to the protocols of the old. They didn’t expect too much from life: that was the way of people then. They wore shoulder badges that said ‘Australia’, and these really weren’t necessary.

Their look, those languid poses, gave them away. They didn’t call themselves ‘Diggers’: that came later.

They didn’t much like saluting: it didn’t seem democratic. A British officer once rebuked an Australian for failing to salute him.

‘I’m a colonel!’ he said.

‘Best job in the army,’ said the Australian. ‘You keep it.’

We didn’t hear these men the way the British and French did. In the night behind the Ypres front an Englishman heard a voice say:

‘Get over, ya bastard.’ It was said casually – there might even have been a hint of affection – and the Englishman knew at once that it was an Australian driver whose horse had shied at some obscenity in a shell hole.

On the Somme front in 1918 an English major observed a ‘curi-ous procession of two – an Australian private soldier, cigarette in mouth, and before him a miserable-looking German shambling along carrying the Aussie’s kit and rifle’. The Australian hadstumbled, drunk, into the British line the previous night. Upon being told where he was he muttered: ‘Hell, I can’t go back to my mob like this. What’ll they say to me?’ He ventured into no-man’s land and half-an-hour later returned with a German. He had crept up to a German post and offered to toss a grenade in unless one man gave himself up. Now the Australian was heading back to his division. He would tender the prisoner in mitigation of being absent without leave. He had a hangover and it was good that the German was there to carry his rifle. Still, he would take it off him as they approached the Australian line. Might look bad.

On that same front in the same year Australians had asked a staff captain of a British formation for more hand grenades, or ‘bombs’ as they were called then. The bombs didn’t come. The Australian commander found the staff captain playing bridge. The Australian threatened to take his men out of the line if the bombs didn’t arrive in half-an-hour. The staff captain got up and ordered the bombs delivered at once. The Australian left. The staff captain returned to the bridge game. ‘By jove,’ he said, ‘stout fellers, these Australians, but socially – impossible.’

The French watched these Australians as they stood, heads uptilted, puzzling over the cathedral in Amiens, a Gothic stab at the heavens, so fussy in all its tracery, so intimidating with its gargoyles and grotesques, and like nothing at Ballarat or Wagga Wagga, where the divine rights of clerics and kings had hardly played at all. The French saw them coming out of the battle for Pozières, white-faced and looking as if they had been drugged. They saw them squatting under the willows that line the Somme canals while four of their mates played cricket nearby, using a stick as a bat. The French saw them offering a farmer’s wife a few coins if she would make them coffee laced with brandy. They would stand in front of her kitchen fire and stare at the crucifixes on the wall, then leave to doss down on straw in one of the barns. They had an easy-going way about them and spoke French badly and in between giggles. They seemed to like farms, although it puzzled them that holdings so small could produce so much, and even more that cows should spend the nights in brick barns, filling them with the ammonia fumes of urine on straw.

The French saw Australians slapping horses with the reins to drive them through a bog, saw them stamping their feet against the frost and snow that seemed so foreign, saw them rolling up their sleeves on a summer’s day before tossing a grenade into a canal in the hope of stunning a few fish. They are still there, so many of these men. Those who were found are in the archipelago of cemeteries that stretches from Villers-Bretonneux to Passchendaele; and those who weren’t lie under fields of corn and sugar beet.

The men spoke of this place in terms of villages, roads and rivers.

To them, the names of these created their own imagery. It was enough to say that a man had been at Bullecourt. It was enough to speak of the Menin Road at Ypres and the Stations of the Cross above it, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde. The men knew the rivers well, because they kept crossing them. The Somme dawdled and the Ancre tinkled. Both might have been thought beautiful in other circumstances.

For three years these Australians, youths of seventeen and bald-ing men of forty-five, tramped up and down the Somme downland and the Flanders plain, past wayside shrines and clusters of brick barns, sometimes marching twenty miles in a day, haversacks and scabbards slapping against their thighs, going up to the war and coming out again, taking in reinforcements and going back again.

We didn’t see them when they won their great battle in front of Amiens in 1918 or when they later broke through the Hindenburg Line, where their leader, Lieutenant-General John Monash, also had two American divisions under his command. In 1918 the world seemed so weary of war and so suspicious of official dispatches that even victories sounded like more of the same and needed to be questioned. By 1918 people knew that the newspapers had not been telling them the truth about the war. We still don’t know much about those successes and the skill with which they were arranged.

Lieutenant Cyril Lawrence wrote to his mother: ‘You will never know, you people in Australia, what the boys have done – even the people of England do not know because they call us British troops in the paper.’ We didn’t know until years later how badly the Australians had suffered in 1916 and 1917, at Fromelles and Pozières, Bullecourt and Passchendaele. As the Australian historian Robin Prior has written, those men engaged the main army of the main enemy in the main theatre of war. This has not happened with Australian troops since.

We saw these men leave, full of derring-do, for a war that would turn out nothing like they expected, and indeed nothing like anyone expected. And we saw some of them come back, many haunted and secretive, and for the next twenty years the country went through a long grieving, and now it was the turn of women and children to suffer and to wonder what demons had come unbidden into their world. They knew these men before and after they went across the sea. They never saw them when, for three years, they did things Australians have never done since.

WHEN YOU TRY to write about these men it is better if you can see the ground, better if you can walk around alone for a while. You mostly end up doing the same things. You work out which way is east and which is west because these are the directions that matter most. The British and the French usually attacked from the west and the Germans for most of the war usually shot them down from trenches and blockhouses in the east. Between east and west is no-man’s land and that’s where you invariably find the shrapnel ball, grey and heavy in the hand, and proof that this field of corn, now sappy with life, was once a place where men from a faraway land cried out for water and their mothers. You hear the barking of unseen dogs and this leads you to identify the village on the river-bank. You can’t see the houses and barns because of the plane trees, but you can see the church spire and one navigates by spires here.

God is everywhere in the lands of the Somme and Flanders, and in the Great War that passeth understanding both sides drew comfort from the certainty that He was with them.

Eventually you are tempted to try something that almost always ends in bathos. You try to redraw the landscape. You blot out the round hay bales and the tractor with a cloud of grey-brown dust boiling behind it. You try to draw in trench lines and observation balloons and khaki bundles hung up on barbed wire. You take that field of sugar beet and try to turn it into thousands of shell holes, each with a slimy puddle at the bottom. You take that copse, soft and leafy, and try to transform it into stumps, outraged and black-ened. It hardly ever works; yet you always try.

It is better to see the ground. It doesn’t necessarily lead you to the truth. Often there is no truth about these battles, just a clamour of voices. But it can be the start of understanding, this walking around. There are other roads to the same end. All have potholes and some are cul-de-sacs.

There are official documents, operational and intelligence reports and the diaries and memoirs of generals. These mostly sound like disembodied voices. They are discreet and careful; they do not admit to chaos or fear; ineptitude is often dressed up as bad luck. The general staff is seldom taken by surprise and the passive voice is almost strident. Failure is often explained by saying that the frontline troops, ‘though they attacked in a most gallant manner ’were ‘inexperienced’. Generals are never said to be inexperienced, and of course they were. But we must also try to be fair to the generals. We should not blame them for not knowing things that we know now.

The diaries of Douglas Haig for 1917 leave the reader convinced that the commander-in-chief of the British and dominion forces didn’t understand that his troops, far away to the east, were stalled in front of Passchendaele village mainly because they were waist-deep in mud and the wounded were drowning. Haig is here, disembodied at GHQ, with sheafs of maps and other pieces of paper that say the war is orderly, almost as orderly as the field-marshal’s daily routine; and the soldiers are there, in an ocean of mud. They no longer know quite where they are or what they are supposed to be doing. They are in the same war as Haig, but their war is a shambles. The generals William Birdwood and Alexander Godley commanded the two Anzac corps for most of the Great War and both afterwards wrote autobiographies. Neither book men-tioned a battle in France in 1916 near a village called Fromelles.

Omission is also part of the game.

As a counterpoint there are the letters and diaries of ordinary soldiers. The diary may be a Collins Paragon Diary No. 181, black-bound and dimpled, or scraps of paper that have been cut into small squares and bound with string. These chronicles are usually written with an indelible pencil and sometimes with fountain pens that leave blots when the hand pauses at the end of a sentence.

Nothing matches them for verisimilitude. An Australian lieutenant writes in 1916: ‘I have one puttee, a dead man’s helmet, another dead man’s gas protector, a dead man’s bayonet. My tunic is rotten with other men’s blood and partly splattered with a comrade’s brains.’ Read that and you know what it was like to be on the gentle rise above Pozières village in 1916.

The vigour and directness of soldiers’ prose also tells us much about the Australian idiom of the day, which was almost free of Americanisms and home-grown in a way that today’s language is not. Men occasionally talked about their mates or pals, but more often they wrote of their cobbers. Seldom does one come upon a soldier saying he went over the top; he hopped the bags. He doesn’t take part in an attack but a stunt. When some of his cobbers are killed he says they are knocked. The place where they are knocked is a very warm corner. Leave in Paris or London is said to be bonzer. High-ranking officers are heads and some of them are thought to be duds. One feels queer when a hot piece of shrapnel tears into one’s arm. After that one looks for a cushy job. A man who is carefree is gay. Things are not stolen but half-inched. Coves, beggars and coots make up the passing parade. Yet there are sometimes problems with soldiers’ letters too.

Troops on a battlefield can see only so far, maybe as little as twenty yards, but they are quick to blame the soldiers on their flanks for any reverses. A soldier writes his account of the battle of Polygon Wood; the date that he gives tells you that he is fighting the battle that preceded it, on Menin Road ridge. We need to remember that there was still a Victorian sensibility, even in private letters. There were things one did not talk about. Fear and despair and doubt were three of them. Pat Barker wrote of English soldiers of the Great War in her novel Regeneration. She has one of her characters say in an interior monologue: ‘They’d been trained to identify emo-tional repression as the essence of manliness.’ So too it was with the Australians.

There is another trouble with soldiers’ letters. They touch you in a way that official documents do not. They drag you in when you are trying to stand back. You follow a man to Egypt and Gallipoli and on to Pozières and Passchendaele. You gain a sense of him, of where he came from and of the people to whom he is writing. You come to like him, his rough sense of humour and his acceptance of outrageous events. And then his letters end and you look him up on a file and it says ‘Killed in action’, followed by a date, and you feel a loss.

And there are maps. A map is sometimes as much an abstraction as a graph about poverty: all the numbers are there, but you can’t smell the boiled cabbage. Detractors pursued General Monash in life and in death. He wasn’t the true article, they whispered: too cerebral, not swashbuckling enough. Some of these critics point to Monash’s failure at Gallipoli in August, 1915, when the brigade he led failed to take the heights above the Anzac beachhead. The battle plan looks reasonable when drawn on a map, and at least one critic has suggested that the poor leadership Monash is supposed to have shown there might be explained by the fact that he was over-weight, which he then was. When you try to follow his steps, in daylight and with no-one shooting at you from the heights, you realise that the swell of Monash’s girth had nothing to do with any-thing. The country there is mad. There is no grain to it. It rears and plunges in a jumble of ravines and razorbacks. And, as you blunder on, you realise that the scheme, that flourish of arrows stabbing into the Turkish hills, could never have worked. It looked right only on a map owned by an officer on the general staff.

It is always better if you can see the ground.

SO WE ARE here on a plain in French Flanders, near the village of Fromelles. That’s its church spire you can see to the east and further along the same rise is the village of Aubers, which gives its name to the ridge, little more than a frown on the horizon, but high enough for observation. The ground on the plain is heavy clay, nothing like as sweet as the chalky loams of the Somme to the south, and as flat as a tabletop. All that breaks it is a ditch, not much more than six-feet across, sullen and splotched with algae, the nettles along its banks proclaiming its sourness. On the trench maps of the Great War this drain rejoiced in the name of the Laies River. Dusk is almost upon us. The sky is pastel blue and streaked with contrails and the east wind blows clouds of butterflies this way and that over a patch of pumpkins. Children sit straight-backed on ponies at the riding school next to the Australian cemetery and the voice of the instructress, bubbly and cheery, echoes across the empty plain and argues with what once went on here.

This is where the Australians in 1916 fought their first battle in France. Several thousand of them died within a few minutes’ walk either side of where you are standing. They died in a single night, many of them before the sun had properly set. Some were Gallipoli men and others had never been in battle before. Some were still wearing felt hats rather than metal helmets. None of them knew much about how the war was being fought on the western front.

They quite likely thought, as they had been taught to think, that winning was about ‘character’ and ‘the spirit of the bayonet’, when in truth the world had changed. Winning was about firepower, which meant artillery, but another year would pass before this notion began to take on. It was, after all, a form of heresy. It went against just about everything a fifty-year-old British general had been taught at his public school, at the staff college and on the job in India, Egypt and South Africa. It reeked of intellectualism – all those calculations about the weight of shells required to take so many yards of trench – and the British armies of the Victorian and Edwardian eras had been uncomfortable with intellectuals. They understood and admired officers who fearlessly put their horses at stone walls on the hunting fields. Field-Marshal Wolseley wrote in 1897: ‘I hope the officers of Her Majesty’s Army may never degen-erate into bookworms.’ There was no sign of this happening, he conceded, before going on to hint that too much reading could be unmanly.

Fromelles may be the most tragic battlefield in Australia’s his-tory. Yet it had no place in Australian folklore during the Great War and none now. The register at the cemetery shows thirty-five visi-tors for the previous month. Fromelles refuses to lodge in the Australian consciousness. One reason for this may be that Pozières, a much bigger battle in which three Australian divisions fought, began four days later down on the Somme. Another may be that Australians at home weren’t told much about Fromelles. And another is almost certainly that the British and Australian commanders didn’t much want to talk about it, because what they ordered done there was afterwards hard to explain.

The Australians and a British division left their breastworks (the ground was too wet to dig conventional trenches) and attacked from the north across the open plain at about 6 pm in bright daylight. The Germans waited for them on the flat ground to the south, where they had built concrete bunkers and blockhouses, notably at a place known as the Sugarloaf, which bulged out as a salient and bristled with machine guns. Other German divisions were behind, up on that ridge where Fromelles nestles, up where you can see everything that moves on the plain. That was the way of the western front for most of the war: the Germans were on the high ground and the British and French were trying to get up there.

SOMEWHERE IN FRONT of the Australians at Fromelles in 1916, somewhere behind the Sugarloaf, probably a mile or so from the front, there was a German corporal who fussed over a white terrier he called Foxl. The dog had strayed over from the British lines and the corporal had taught it tricks. We don’t know whether this soldier was in the fighting against the Australians around the Sugarloaf, although one account – not to be relied upon – has him running through trenches clogged with dead and mutilated men. He was a dispatch runner in the Bavarian division that held the front and had been awarded the Iron Cross, second class, in 1914.

This man stares at us from a photograph taken at Fromelles in April, 1916. He is lank and pale and looks older than his twenty-seven years. He has a thick moustache, droopy and lop-sided, and his neck rears out of a baggy jacket. His eyes are hooded and dull, as though the mind behind them is so run down it can put out no light. There is much of the bumpkin about him: he is not so much a soldier as the man who collects the tickets at an alpine rail-way station. His comrades thought him odd. He would throw a tantrum if the barrack-room talk about the war turned glum. He was too literal-minded to enjoy jokes. He didn’t smoke. He spurned alcohol and the French girls in the back-area villages. He had decided long ago that life was a fearful struggle. Why try to make it pleasanter? The little terrier gave him affection and, unlike the French girls, made no demands on his honour. He was annoyed when, during the Christmas of 1914, German and British troops met in no-man’s land to sing carols and swap cigarettes. He thought such things gave war a bad name.

It would have been better for the world if a stray shell had landed on him at Fromelles during that British-Australian attack of July 19, 1916. He was a nobody then. Later, as Adolf Hitler, the world would come to know him better.

WE NEED TO find the Sugarloaf so that we have a reference point from which we can pencil in the rest of the battlefield. Martial Delebarre, from Fromelles, knows the ground as well as anyone. In 1992 he found a bone-handled table knife here. The blade was broken and rusted. Scratched on the handle was ‘G. Blake’. Private George Francis Blake, a carpenter from Footscray, Victoria, died near the Sugarloaf, aged twenty-six. A year after his death his wife inserted an ‘In Memoriam’ notice in the Age that ended: ‘Each day I miss his footsteps/As I walk through life alone.’

Now Delebarre has to find the Sugarloaf again, and the navigation has to be precise because there isn’t much of the strong point left. You follow him across the wheat stubble, keeping the fetid ditch on the right. You plunge into a field of ripened corn to be swiped by the hairy tassels on the cobs. On the ground you see shrapnel balls and cartridge cases spotted with green mould. Then into a field of potatoes, where you follow the furrows to avoid stepping on the wilting plants. Then into another field of corn, then into wheat stubble that reeks from a dressing of cattle manure.

You turn right across a small bridge over the ditch and into a bigger field of stubble. Now Delebarre’s eyes are searching for the Sugarloaf. Eventually it identifies itself. Weeds spout from a strip of unploughed land, the only untouched soil in the field, just a few feet wide and fifteen-feet long. Iron stakes rise out of the weeds. That’s all that remains. Nearby a rusty cylinder, a shrapnel shell from a British field gun, sits up on the stubble and German rifle rounds are everywhere, most spent, a few not. A farmer ploughs the field as we stand talking. The tines of his plough will bury those German cartridges and bring up other war debris, maybe something exotic, a toffee-apple mortar shell perhaps, or a tin of Three Nuns pipe tobacco.

So you stand there, at the centrepiece of this battlefield, and look back towards the allied line that you can now start to sketch in.

Somewhere near that patch of thistles there died a wool buyer from Geelong, a medical student from Colac, a Duntroon graduate, a detective from Sydney, an architecture student from Melbourne.

Just north of where we are standing the Australian wounded lay in the open, among knee-high weeds that had sprung up in the unplanted fields. Some remained there for five days and nights, sev-eral for three weeks. They scrounged food and water from the dead and watched maggots squirming in their wounds. One man cried out ‘Bill, Bill’ all night and at dawn was heard no more. Some raised their arms and legs or rolled from one side to the other in the hope of shifting the pain. An Australian bringing in broken men from no-man’s land heard a voice about thirty yards away. ‘Don’t forget me, cobber,’ it said. So many friendships ended within a couple of hundred yards of here: over in that stubble, behind the riding school, in and around that ditch, near the patches of pumpkins and cabbages and where the hay bales lie bleaching in the sun.

It is too much for the imagination to take in on this pretty summer’s night with the horizon now blushing with soft pinks.

This place was an open-air abattoir for most of the Great War.

About 20,000 Germans, Britons, Frenchmen, Indians, Australians, Canadians and Portuguese died in these few acres. Most have no known grave. Now this ground is a food bowl again, bleak and sticky in winter, but kind: no droughts, no bushfires.

Fromelles is a typical village in French Flanders, smart and clean the way the Somme villages to the south are dowdy and charming.

Red geraniums explode out of window boxes and elderly couples potter in their vegetable gardens before locking up the ducks for the night. Many of Fromelles’ residents now work in the nearby city of Lille but the village is still about the land and its rhythms.

Australians moving up for the attack here in 1916 recalled passing labourers, men and women with old and inscrutable faces, hoeing mangolds as shells shrieked across the sky. Eighty-seven years on, in the gloaming, you hear the diesel knock of a tractor making a last pass before night closes in.

The land healed itself and life went on as before. Yet the world changed here, and along the line that led north for twenty miles to Passchendaele in Belgium and fifty miles south to the still waters of the Somme, and on from there to the madness of Verdun, where the land has not healed and probably never will. The nature of war changed in these soft fields. War lost its romantic glow here, and let’s not worry that this imagery was false because war has always been about the grubby business of killing people. War here was no longer pretty: no red-and-blue uniforms, no pipeclay, no rushes of cavalry, none of the panoply of the fox hunt, no generals issuing orders from the saddle and needing nothing other than their voice to pass them on. The new colours were khaki and field grey, the right hues for the industrial age and its armies of conscripts. The war here was about machines: howitzers and mortars, machine guns and trains, wafer-like aircraft and tanks so ponderous that one could outpace them on foot, poisonous gas and flamethrowers.

Wars had always been romantic to those who didn’t go, which meant most of the people. Henry V had 7000 men at Agincourt and those who returned made play of a victory against the odds and only whispered about the dysentery and the murder of French prisoners. Shakespeare did the rest.

This was different. It touched more people. One way or another everyone in the British Isles was caught up in the Great War. After the opening of the British attack on the Somme in 1916, with its 57,000 casualties on the first day, whole streets and suburbs fell into mourning. Just about every family, high and low, was touched by death. There seemed more death than glory. The French lost 330,000 men killed or taken prisoner in less than a month early in the war. This was about mass armies and, by mid-1916, there seemed no end to it. Vladimir Lenin, the Bolshevik firebrand living in exile in Switzerland, wrote at the outbreak of war in 1914: ‘The epoch of the bayonet has begun.’ He was wrong. Bayonets caused less than one per cent of deaths on the western front. This was the epoch of the howitzer.

The year before the Australian attack at Fromelles the British had tried to take Aubers Ridge by attacking through the village of Neuve Chapelle. The opening artillery barrage lasted thirty-five minutes and more than eighty aircraft helped direct the fire. More shells were fired in that opening barrage than for all of the Boer War, yet one reason the attack failed was that the barrage was too light. At Verdun in 1916 the Germans brought up 1000 heavy guns and two million shells – for a front of only eight miles. By 1918 Britain’s armies included half-a-million gunners, twice as many men as the whole expeditionary force it had sent to France in 1914.

Australian life was changed by that same line of trenches, but with a difference. Just about alone among the warring powers, Australia did not introduce conscription. A young nation with a population of just under five million at the outbreak of war sent 324,000 volunteers overseas to fight. Most of the 61,000 who died and the 155,000 who were wounded fell along the line that stretched northwards from the Somme to Passchendaele. Those casualties work out at around two-thirds of all who went overseas, the highest rate among the British empire forces. Why did a country so far away from the conflict give up so much? Why did it bury so much of its future under the chalk of the Somme and the clay of Flanders? How many young men who might have been prime ministers or professors, novelists or scientists, lie in the ground here?

FRANCE AND BELGIUM still give up their dead from the Great War.

The headstone of Sergeant John James White, a blacksmith from the high country of East Gippsland, is paler and cleaner than the others in a cemetery near Bullecourt. A tractor driver turned up White’s remains in 1995. A metal detector turned up his effects.

These included a wallet that contained a photograph of the ten-month-old daughter he had left behind. Myrtle went to her father’s funeral in France as an eighty-year-old.

In 1998, near the Windmill above Pozières village, a farmer felt his plough strike something and stopped his tractor. He climbed down to make sure it wasn’t a shell. He had uncovered the body of Private Russell Bosisto, a baker from South Australia, lying in heavy clay. He was on his back and clutching a rifle in his right hand. He had died there in August, 1916, most likely killed by a machine gun. All his effects were with him, including a pipe, a penknife and an identity disc that was still legible. They buried him in a military cemetery down the hill. Mourners gathered blood-red poppies from the nearby fields and dropped them into his grave.

There are few fences on the Somme. When you do see one it is usually around a cemetery from the Great War. And the cemeteries are everywhere, laid out like formal English gardens, the hardness of the headstones offset by the gentleness of roses and daisies and willows.

The grave of Fred Tubb, a farmer from Longwood in Victoria’s north-east, lies near Poperinghe, west of Ypres, in Belgium. There was a hospital here, so it was inevitable that the hop field nearby became a graveyard. Tubb had won the Victoria Cross in the grot-toes of Lone Pine on Gallipoli after being wounded in the head and arm. His time came two years later in the battle of Menin Road, just east of Ypres. A pink rose blooms near his grave. Beyond the cemetery Friesian cattle crop the short grass around a shed, the walls of which are marked with soldiers’ graffiti. The war is gone and it is still here. The past is gone but it isn’t dead. Only the men are dead.

Phillip Schuler lies south of here, just across the border in France, on a rich plain broken by red-brick farmhouses. He was a journalist at the Age. His father edited the paper and suffered throughout the war because of his German name and birthplace.

Phillip Schuler was handsome and outgoing. He loved books and plays and everyone seemed to like him. He went to Gallipoli as a war correspondent, saw Lone Pine and the August offensive and wrote a book, Australia in Arms. Schuler had a sensitive ear and a light touch; it was an astonishingly good book from someone in his mid-twenties. One might have thought that, after Gallipoli, Schuler would have realised that it is always better to be a reporter than a soldier. But in 1916 he enlisted, not as an officer, as he could have been, but as a driver. And, not long after the battle of Messines in Belgium, he died of wounds to the left arm, the right leg, the face and the throat. He was just short of twenty-eight years old and he had literally been shot to pieces.

And here he is now, lying in the ground at Trois Arbres cemetery at Steenwerck with a crab apple tree next to his grave. Each spring the blossom comes out pink for the shining youth who is no more. Schuler lies with 469 Australians, 997 Britons, 214 New Zealanders, twenty-two Canadians, one South African and one Indian. Here, under a grey sky, is a lost generation. There were so many, and they were ours, and we never really saw them.

Gallipoli by Les Carlyon – Extract

9781743534229The earth abideth forever

Spring is coming to the Gallipoli Peninsula, so surely there is a pulse to it. The shepherd bends down, cups his hand under a new lamb, all clanging heart and spongy ribs, and tucks it under his arm. The lamb wears yellow smears of foetal fluid down its hind legs and a speckle of gore on its forehead. The mother stares up at the shepherd, half-trusting: he gave it back last time. The other ewes mill around the car, hoofs clicking like castanets on the bitumen. They are old and daggy and heavily in lamb, and they are trying to be skittish. The warm wind has set off something in their
heads. They smell the sappy grass in the culvert and blunder into a trot, trampling the bluebells in the roadside gravel. The shepherd owns a stick, too rough to be called a crook, and
three yellow dogs with pitiless eyes. He wears a woollen fez and a brocaded vest and grins through stubble. He appears to be straight from antiquity, doing what shepherds have been doing here for thousands of years. So long as the Athenians weren’t fighting the Peloponnesians, that is, or the Ottomans the Venetians. And so long as the city-state at one end of the Dardanelles wasn’t scrapping with the Persian stronghold at the other end. Then you notice that the shepherd wears an earpiece that leads to a transistor radio in his shirt pocket and that his lunch of bread and olives is flopping about in a supermarket bag tucked through his belt.

Doesn’t matter. Antiquity – or timelessness, its near-relation – is easy to find here. You stand at the foot of the Kilitbahir massif, layer upon layer of wavy sandstone known to the locals as the
place of gigantic ghosts’, and stare across the water to the Asianshore of the Dardanelles. This is where the British-French battle fleet ran into a minefield in 1915 and limped off determined not to fight another day if it could possibly get out of it. This is also close to where, 3000 years earlier, the ships of the Achaean Greeks arrived for the Trojan War. There are no skyscrapers, no petrochemical
plants or corporate signs. History’s stadium is much as it was. You are seeing pretty much what Alexander the Great saw. Close your eyes and you can see St Paul trudging behind a caravan
and wondering whether the villagers up ahead will want to pelt him with stones or fete him. Everyone came to the Dardanelles, but only to get somewhere else. In 1915 the British and French were
going to Constantinople. This was to be a stopover.

The tortoises are out grazing today, poking their heads from under black-and-khaki helmets, as though they have been outfitted by an army surplus store and are shy about their new clothes. A dolphin performs languid arcs beneath the castle on Kilitbahir harbour and sardines boil in the creek at Kum Tepe. A fisherman pulls on a wetsuit and begins to herd fish into the net he has set off the Anzac battlefield. Purple irises are poking through in the cemeteries and the wild pear trees wear white blossom. The Judas trees among the headstones at Shrapnel Gully are a blaze of pink and purple, so gorgeous that no betrayer of a messiah would consider hanging himself from a lesser tree. A hawk glides in the fairy blue sky over Anzac, surveying the great boneyard for signs of life.

Anzac was never farmed like the rest of the peninsula. General Otto Liman von Sanders, the German who commanded the Turkish land forces during the Gallipoli campaign, called this coast a ‘waste landscape’. Here is a tangle of gullies and ridges that is eroding away, bleeding its yellow sludge into the Aegean every time the rains come. All that blood and bone from 1915, and still this place refuses to bloom. As an Australian soldier wrote home in 1915, it wouldn’t feed a bandicoot. At the other battlefields on the peninsula, on the plains of Helles to the south and Suvla to the north, poppies appear like blood clots in fields of bright green wheat. Farmers work the stubble with chisel ploughs, their tractors rocking and throbbing like tramp steamers in a swell. Behind the plough you still pick up the flotsam of war. A brown-and-beige shard from an English rum jar. A curling piece of shrapnel, splintery and rusty and leaden in your hand. A tobacco tin that disintegrates as you force the hinges and falls through your hand like dust.

The tomatoes are going in on the red-brown dirt of the Suvla plain. Everyone is out in the fields, as if to celebrate the land coming alive again. Old men lean on whatever is handy and occasionally lift something heavy; mostly they give advice. Women in great bloomers of trousers tamp in the seedlings. Young men unravel the black irrigation pipes that lead to the pump on the well. At dusk the family clambers on to the trailer behind the tractor and goes home exhausted, except the old men. They light cigarettes and explain how things might have been done better.

No-one, neither locals nor tourists, much visits the cemeteries of Suvla. Anzac and Helles, though defeats for the British and French empires, are thought to have honour and the hint of romance.
Suvla is untrodden; the cemeteries seem to say ‘Lest we remember’. Suvla is for tomatoes and wheat and peppers. And goats, large herds of them, a black-and-tan breed from the Greek islands. They browse the ridges, a bite here, a bite there, all the time going forward,
their neck-bells tinkling. This land has been farmed and fought over for 5000 years that we know of. Along the coasts are the ruins – sometimes nothing more than a litter of broken tiles or a burial mound – of fabled cities: Troy and Dardanos on the Asian side of the Dardanelles,
Elaeus down at Cape Helles, Sestos and Abydos up near Nagara Point. Australian sappers in 1915 came on pottery and other artefacts while tunnelling towards the Turkish trenches at Lone Pine. French soldiers at Morto Bay dug into a graveyard thought to be 3400 years old; the corpses were in jars. Some of the Frenchmen tried to protect the relics and were killed – by artillery fire from
near Troy. The warriors come and go but the rhythms of the land are eternal.

The caravans from the east once came to Canakkale, the largest town in these parts, on the Asian side of the Narrows. The shores of the Dardanelles are only 1400 yards apart here. Pilgrims came on their way to Jerusalem or Mecca. Canakkale was the cockpit of the world; here, Westerners liked to think, European virtue met Asian vice. In old ~anakkale, home to 16,000 people in 1915, the houses were of wood or sun-dried bricks and minarets towered over all. Muslims lived near the docks, gypsies behind the castle guarding the Narrows, Jews along what is now the main street and Greeks behind the waterfront north of the docks. Over on the peninsula, Maidos (now Eceabat) and Krithia (now Al~itepe) were Greek villages, as was Kum Kale, at the entrance to the Dardanelles on the Asian side. Gallipoli, the English word for this place, is derived from a Greek word meaning
‘fair city’. Canakkale is now a university town of 62,000 people. Apartment blocks of white concrete rise behind the sweep of the esplanade. The old part of Istanbul (which the British called Constantinople in 1915) is still Byzantine and dark and teeming with street vendors, all of whom have relations in Sydney and Melbourne and, should you be foolish enough to confess that you come from there, Dubbo as well. Canakkale is Mediterranean and sunny, too relaxed to be on the make.

Fish are for sale in panniers on the docks; they flop and send up frantic bubbles and skinny cats with the hearts of thieves crouch near a bollard, waiting for someone to get careless. Across the esplanade, youths are playing basketball and ponies hitched to gypsy carts nuzzle into feedbags tied with twine behind their ears. The corn vendor leans over his griddle with a cigarette hanging from his mouth and a boy hurries past with sesame rings on a tray on his head. The locals stroll along the esplanade, day and night, hot or cold. The view is too lovely to hurry.

The water is never the same: blood-red, then pastel blue, then slate, then silver, then pink. It is sometimes all these colours at once, like the tail of a gigantic peacock, as someone once said. Most days you can see, across the water from Canakkale, the New Zealand memorial high on Chunuk Bair; sometimes Chunuk Bair hides in the mists like a mysterious and faraway country, which it
is. University students in jeans and Nike tops go hand in hand along the esplanade, giggling into mobile phones; alongside them are women in veils and ankle-length gaberdine coats and whiskered men in woollen fezzes. That’s how it goes in Turkey: some think the spiritual capital is Mecca and others, mostly the young, lean towards Hollywood. As in 1915, the country doesn’t know whether it belongs in the East or the West. clocktower the Troy-Anzac Travel Agency looks across at the
Hotel Anzac. Down the street is the Aussie and Kiwi Restaurant; around the corner is Anzac House, which advertises that its tours are ‘hassle free’. In spring the peninsula tizzies itself up for the
annual invasion.

A few days before Anzac Day the crosses in the French cemetery at Morto Bay are sticky with black paint. There is something honest about them. They have the starkness of iron fencing stakes,
which is what they look to have been made from; you expect to see barbed wire twitched to them. With their rose beds and open spaces, the British cemeteries seem to be saying that war is sad but
ennobling; the French crosses say it is black and grubby. Graders and tip-trucks lumber over the Anzac and Helles battlefields. Walls are being patched, lawns watered, towers installed so that mobile phones will work. Bitumen is sprayed straight on to the gravel roads like paint. Matthew Taylor, a landscape architect from Sydney, is preparing the new site for the dawn service at North Beach. Several dozen Turkish labourers have not turned up for work today. No explanations;
they simply aren’t here. In the afternoon Taylor discovers why. They had to plant tomatoes. New ceremonial sites are interesting; tomatoes are the stuff of life.

THE DAWN SERVICE draws about 15,000 pilgrims: old men with their uncles’ medals jangling on sportscoats, Vietnam vets with medals pinned on yellow rugby guernseys, backpackers lumping bedrolls, 20-year-olds with Australian flags draped over their shoulders, school kids on trips, matrons from Sydney’s North Shore. Around 3 am the mood is like a sports stadium before the teams run out:
whistles, catcalls, skylarking, half-hearted Mexican waves, a turmoil of emotions looking for an outlet. The Australians murder a few slabs of beer and the New Zealanders murder a few vowels. In
the coldest hour of all, just before dawn, the mood becomes serene, just the odd murmur behind the flames from hundreds of candles. What this beach symbolises to the crowd is beyond reason and
probably beyond knowing. Jean Cocteau, the French writer who drove an ambulance in World War I- what did he say? ‘What is history after all? History is facts that become lies in the end;
legends are lies which become history in the end.’ This is far from being Australia’s costliest battlefield. In 1916 two battles at Fromelles and Pozieres produced roughly the same number of Australian casualties- around 28,000- as the eight months of the Gallipoli conflict. Three times as many British and French troops died here as did Australians and New Zealanders.Gallipoli was a defeat, not at all like the triumph of the Light Horse in Palestine, yet no-one lights candles as dusk falls at Beersheba on the night of October 31. Good and evil did not meet onthe field here. Gallipoli was about strategy, not ideology. Gallipoli did not threaten Australia as did the fall of Singapore in 1942. As a battle, Gallipoli did not change the world as Stalingrad did. Gallipoli was all about the British empire, which is as dead as Rudyard Kipling and just as quaint, and a world where the test of manhood and of a nation’s right to exist was thought to be on the battlefield. This is Australia’s largest memorial, and it isn’t even in Australia. And another curious thing: the Australians and New Zealanders who died here were, in truth, fighting for Nicholas II, last Tsar of Russia. He had been promised Constantinople. 

None of this matters. The siren-call of this beach has little to do with facts or common sense or the desiccated footnotes of academics. It is rooted in myth and nostalgia – and imagining. Everyone who comes here tries to paint pictures on the empty landscape, to bring it back the way it was. Dugouts and tents and piles of stores. Woolly clouds of shrapnel. Battleships rocking and half-hidden behind mustard clouds as they bombard the hills. Lighters hovering around frail-looking piers and, behind one of these piers, a post office and a telephone exchange. A biplane droning overhead. A mule squealing and trying to buck off its load. Troops swimming to drown their lice. The crackle of rifle fire up on the escarpment. The music of a smithy’s hammer. The smell of upturned earth and open latrines and pipe tobacco and creosol and cordite. The smell of corpses, the ripeness of death in your nostrils all day and all night. The hollow pop of rifle shells being ejected, like no other sound there is. The wind blowing pages from the Bulletin and the Ballarat Courier into the Turkish trenches. Bayonets bobbing above the Turkish parapets, the occasional glimpse of an Ottoman soldier in a cloth helmet. Bundles that were once men, arms and legs at grotesque angles, lying out in no-man’s land. Men hefting water up the ridges. Men stumbling down the ridges, bloodied and befuddled, heading for the beach, following the same instinct that tells a wounded animal to go home. Flies. Flies everywhere. Blue flies, green flies, black flies. And the scent of thyme.

And how did the Anzac soldier look? Lean and laconic, as he is supposed to be, wearing torn shorts and a cheeky grin as he brews tea, everything about him saying that war is just another hindrance and will you take a squiz at the Pommie joker over there with the monocle. Or was he scared and bewildered and wasted by dysentery, as he isn’t supposed to be, because these things don’t sit too well with mythology? Anyway, we shouldn’t be too scornful of mythology. Where would religion be without it? And this part of the peninsula is rather like Golgotha, a place of skulls, quiet now but loaded up with old agonies.

What were these Australians doing here? They had joined up to fight Germans in France and Belgium, and here they were lost in antiquity, in this place some of them had never heard of until a few weeks before they landed. We know what they wrote in their letters and diaries. But what did they really think? Imaginings. Young Australians come here for one, maybe two, days in the European spring and wander these hills trying to discover their past, to unearth truths about an Australian nation, white and rustic and British, that no longer exists and is not coming back. Gallipoli, as a wise man once said, is a country of the mind. Everyone who comes here sees the story the way they want to see it.

TINY WAVES CARESS the shore an hour before dawn. A flash of phosphorescence,
the rattle of shingle, then silence. A shooting star cascades through the night and the moon begins to slide down behind the Sphinx, the jagged spur, fluted and sharp like a rotten tooth, that dominates this part of the beach. The master of ceremonies tells the crowd the service is being broadcast live on television to Australia. ‘Hi, mum,’ a girl shouts. Australians and New Zealanders swarm over the Anzac battlefield as soon as the service ends. Black figures are silhouetted on the skyline of Walker’s Ridge, clambering upward, as though there is still some need to get inland before the sun is properly up. Near Shell Green cemetery a retired Australian army officer points in the direction of Bolton’s Ridge and says, half to himself: ‘Now if we’d landed over there, where we were bloody well supposed to … ‘ A 25-year-old Turkish schoolteacher smiles at him and says in English:
‘You Australians never learn.’ Here is one of the peculiar things about the Anzac tradition, or myth or legend or whatever it is. The Australians and the Turks, the enemies of 1915 who didn’t much bother about taking prisoners in the first weeks of the campaign, have ended up friends. They laugh with
each other easily and share a dry sense of humour. Their war, they feel, had honour; there is no incident that festers, no Burma-Thailand railway, no Babi-Yar, hardly a dead civilian. It was a soldiers’ war.

The service at Lone Pine cemetery, on the ground where Australians won seven Victoria Crosses, begins in bright sunshine at 9 am. The dawn service was subdued and respectful; this one has an air of triumph, as though this is really Australian ground and everyone can behave as they would back home. Australians stand shoulder to shoulder on three of the four walls. The cemetery lawn is like an island rookery in spring: teeming with life, territorial plots marked out by rucksacks and tracksuit tops. Backpackers who have been up all night fall asleep among the graves. One sleeps through the Turkish national anthem but lurches to her feet, as if by instinct, when the first few bars of Advance Australia Fair ring out. A couple from the Hunter Valley stands with an air of proprietorship at the grave of Private Oliver Cumberland, from Scone, New South Wales. They know his family and have brought a red rose.

Next Day the pilgrims have gone. It rained overnight, just as on the first night at Anzac Cove 85 years ago. The ground is greasy, dull brown rather than orange-yellow, and the leaves of the dwarf oak are glossy and beaded with tears. The Aegean is a sheet of pale-blue glass and the rain has dissolved the haze. You can see the yellow streaks of beaches on the island of Imbros, from where General Sir Ian Hamilton directed the campaign and began his long journey down the Via Dolorosa. For the first time in three weeks you can see Samothrace, home of Poseidon, god of the sea and of horses. Samothrace looks like a mountain peak exploding out of the Aegean, which it is. It also looks like a proper home for a god: a corona of mist swirls just below the summit. After its one wild day of the year Anzac has reverted to type. Hawks ride the currents. A shepherd near a village behind the battlefield holds up his flock while an old ewe stares at her flanks, then finally lies down and starts to lamb. The tomato seedlings are standing up erect and bright today. Politicians and pilgrims come and go but the earth abideth forever. The wind keens and burns your face.

Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History by Rhonda K. Garelick – Extract

I dressed the universe.

— CoCo Chanel, 1947

What is Chanel? what every woman is wearing without knowing it.

l’ExprEss magazine, 1956

Corporate headquarters for the House of Chanel occupies an anonymous building on a cul-de-sac in Paris’s fashionable first arrondissement. Step- ping inside the lobby, one enters a high modernist temple—a hushed, windowless cavern of gleaming cream-colored marble, smoked glass doors, and Eames chairs for waiting guests.

Patience is required here, since even after being announced by security guards, all visitors are personally ushered upstairs by a Chanel employee who must penetrate an elaborate series of high-security checkpoints with an electronic badge. For convenience, badges are worn on elastic strings around the neck, often hidden beneath the long ropes of Chanel pearls worn by so many of the (mostly female) employees here, along with chain-link belts, bouclé suits, jersey separates, quilted purses, beige-and-black shoes, and hundreds of other iconic objects, which, together with the wafting clouds of Chanel No. 5, conjure the goddess who haunts this temple still. She may have passed away more than forty years ago at the age of eighty-seven, but within these marble walls, the founder of the empire is ever-young, ever-present, and referred to simply as “Mademoiselle.”

Ask nearly any woman in the developed world if she is familiar with “Chanel” and you get an instant reaction—a little “whoosh” of breath, a deep awareness. Most men know who she is, too, or rather what it is, since part of what is being recognized is an identity that transcends fashion and even the person herself. For one hundred years and counting, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel has exerted global influence as a designer, a business- woman, a corporate brand, and, finally, as a symbol of feminine privilege and style.

Although Chanel was born in rural poverty and raised in an orphan- age with little formal education, by the time she was thirty her name was a household word in France. At the age of thirty, she expanded her business into the international market; thanks in part to the wild success of her perfume, Chanel No. 5 (the first synthetically created fragrance in history), she became a multimillionaire before the age of forty. By 1930, when Chanel was forty-seven, she employed 2,400 people and was worth at least $15 million—close to $1 billion in today’s currency. To this day, every three seconds a bottle of Chanel No. 5 is sold; it is the most successful perfume in history. The Chanel corporation, founded in 1910, is the highest-earning privately owned luxury goods manufacturer in the world. Chanel’s influence extends beyond the long life of her company; it has been woven deeply into global consciousness. Her name remains as recognizable today as it was a century ago, known not only to the mil- lions of customers who buy Chanel merchandise at all price points (from perfume to couture), but also to those who wish they could, and to the millions more who buy the infinitely available copies. Every day, on nearly any urban street corner in the world, a constant défilé of Chanel products (genuine and imitation) streams by—the famous initial motif, those interlocking Cs, emblazoned on handbags and scarves, dangling from necklaces and earrings. Not all of the women sporting these accessories necessarily know that they are wearing someone’s initials or that “Chanel” was once a real person, so completely has Chanel the woman blended into Chanel the brand. But they all have faith in the talismanic power of those Cs, in their ability to conjure a little magic, to cast an aura of chic and privilege over their wearer.

I know this because I have been stopping CC-wearing strangers for years to ask them what the letters mean to them. Regardless of social class or whether the “Chanels” are real, the answers rarely vary. When asked why she had chosen her oversize, rhinestone double-C earrings, one inner-city teenager (who was surprised to learn that “Chanel” was the name of a real woman) responded: “I don’t know; it’s just classy. I like the brand.” When asked about her black Chanel sunglasses, an affluent college student first assured me they were “real,” and then said, “It just makes me feel better to have them on.” A Chanel executive offered little more in the way of explanation, stating simply that the double-C logo was “un vrai sésame de luxe”—a French expression roughly translatable as “a truly magical passport [more literally, an ‘open sesame’] to luxury.”

Chanel would not have minded this odd admixture of fame and anonymity. On the contrary, she would have loved it, for she devoted her life to transcending the personal, to transforming herself (and her name) into an icon of feminine desirability and luxury. She would probably be equally pleased to learn that “Chanel” has gained popularity in the twenty-first century as a first name for baby girls in the United States. (A few young women now even bear the hyphenated first name “Coco-Chanel.”)

Through her unique blend of overt and anonymous influence Chanel forged the look of modern womanhood as we know it. Even now, every day, millions of women awake and costume themselves as some version of Coco Chanel, choosing from a vast array of simple and reproducible items that created the streamlined look designed and worn first by Chanel, then by her vast army of customers: skirt suits in neutral colors, trousers, cardigan sweaters, jersey knits, T-shirts, flat shoes, the little black dress, and about a hundred other items we consider wardrobe staples.

Chanel was among the very first to wear her hair short, to wear eye- glasses without shame, even to sport a suntan—formerly scorned as a sign of peasant labor. (Later, when she learned about skin-damaging UV rays, she counseled caution in the sun and developed a lotion with sunscreen.)

Look around you—on the street, in the subway, at the office—at women of all ages and social classes and you will see a kind of retinal afterimage of Coco Chanel. So deeply has the Chanel aesthetic been impressed upon us that we no longer see it—like the air we breathe, it is everywhere but invisible. Even during her lifetime and at the height of her fame, Chanel’s style operated more by stealth than by fanfare.

How can we explain the power and longevity of this one individual’s vision? Certain lives are at once so exceptional and so in step with their historical moment that they illuminate cultural forces far beyond the scope of a single person. Such is the case with Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, whose life, while fascinating in its details, becomes even more compel- ling when studied in relationship to European history, especially the interwar period—the era that launched her to stardom.

Despite the world’s fascination with Coco Chanel, no one has truly broached the subject of her relationship to the sweeping currents of political change in her lifetime; indeed, it has been shunned. “Mention Chanel and politics,” one prominent museum director warned me in ominous tones, “and they will shut you down.”

“They”—the tenders of the Chanel corporate flame—“will sully your reputation.” This may be true, for Chanel’s role in political history remains the curiously blank space around which many other books have been written. Biographies and films about Chanel tend to focus on her personal glamour and on her rags-to-riches story; histories of fashion recount her design work as if it had no political resonance beyond her (quite genuine) liberation of women’s bodies via her easy, relaxed style. Conversely, the books that do look at fashion politically tend to omit Chanel in favor of a literal idea of “political” fashion, tracing, for example, the history of Nazi uniforms, or studying fashion’s role as a wartime morale booster. The references to politics that do appear in Chanel biographies focus on revelations about her friends and lovers, or on a few of her own questionable political actions. What remains to be considered is how her work and art themselves partook of European politics, and what her many intriguing love affairs might offer beyond their anecdotal value. To discover the historical we must sometimes look to the personal.

Chanel came alive in relation to other people, the lovers and friends through whom she absorbed and synthesized every aspect of the world around her—art, history, politics. The key to her global importance lies in those intimate relationships. Chanel approached those closest to her with a uniquely ferocious hunger, a nearly vampiric desire to swallow whole and incorporate whatever appeared most delicious in them—their social status, athletic grace, talent, or style. Her fierce desire to absorb the desirable attributes of others—to borrow from them to enhance herself— sustained her through her early years. But it is also precisely the quality she understood best and appealed to in her own customers. Chanel knew from personal experience how deeply women can yearn to slip, as it were, into someone more comfortable, to burnish their own identities by borrowing someone else’s.

In response, she used fashion to create perhaps the world’s most easily borrowed persona, a persona so attractive on so many levels that other women longed to incorporate it, much as Coco herself had subsumed (and creatively reinterpreted) the influential people in her own life. In this, she demonstrated her strangely flexible, self-aware talent: She could play equally well both—apparently opposite—roles in the drama of emulation. She could, that is, discern and emulate vastly different creative models and then turn around and serve as just such a model for others, becoming arguably the most copied woman of the twentieth century.

Through her personal aesthetics, which evolved out of her own longings, Chanel tapped into other women’s deepest yearnings, whose scope—as Coco always knew—far exceeded the sartorial. Her brilliant grasp of the psychological and social forces driving celebrity emulation led Chanel to create what one might call “wearable personality”—which we are all still wearing today.

From the moment she arrived in Paris, Chanel was playing on the world stage, meeting and befriending some of the most influential and well-connected figures of the twentieth century—members of European royalty, artists and intellectuals, politicians, spies, and criminals. These relationships granted her intimate familiarity with large swaths of history, known to most people only through the pages of books. Coco’s lover Grand Duke Dmitri, for example, regaled her with his family stories—of the Romanov dynasty, the Bolshevik Revolution, and his personal role in the assassination of Rasputin. A later companion, Hugh Grosvenor, the 2nd Duke of Westminster, had participated in the Second Boer War— where he befriended Churchill—and contributed significant financial support to the establishment of British-ruled South Africa and its apartheid system. Artist Paul Iribe, to whom Chanel was briefly engaged, championed protofascist, archconservative, and racist causes, yet also had a deep, familial connection to the Paris Commune, the radical worker uprising of 1871. Iribe’s politics, which evolved in direct opposition to his father’s participation in that Communist revolt, profoundly informed Chanel’s own worldview, which veered ever rightward as time went on. Both personally and through her work, Chanel participated in a particular strain of politics that was heavily inflected with the mass movements of interwar Europe and their manipulations of human desires and insecurities. And yet, ever contradictory, Chanel was most tenderly attached to the memory of her lover, Boy Capel, a committed internationalist, and to her longtime intimate friend—and sometime lover—poet Pierre Reverdy, a staunch leftist who introduced her to classical French literature.

As readily as she took in and assimilated aesthetic influence, Chanel absorbed and filtered elements of European history that she discovered through her social and erotic encounters. Then, through an alchemical process unique to her, she transformed these filaments of history into her designs, creating an aesthetic that now functions as a kind of style DNA for virtually every woman in the industrialized world. Whether we know it or not, we are all now wearing Chanel’s distillation of European history, as she absorbed it through her relationships. No other single individual has ever wielded anything comparable to this degree of aesthetic influence on so many, or for so long.

Chanel herself had a complex personal relationship to the genre of biography: She found it at once frightening and compellingly attractive. Having sought all her life to hide her true origins—the poverty, her orphaned childhood, her lack of education—she replaced her life story with a series of ever-changing fictions, as carefully tailored as her clothes. She destroyed her own letters and begged (or bribed) her correspondents to do the same. Some say that her poor education left her with imperfect written French, which embarrassed her enough to keep her from writing many letters in the first place. Yet those few letters that do remain, in both French and English, while simply written and containing some minor errors, are far from embarrassing. And she famously lied constantly to everyone, about everything—even trivial matters—never bothering even to keep her many fictions consistent.

Yet as much as Chanel wished to hide her story, she yearned to tell it, too, and did—repeatedly—to various potential biographers, only to deny later what she’d recounted, withdraw approval for publication, or simply abandon the endeavor in midstream. This happened with a wide variety of writers (many of them her friends) who attempted to tell her story, including Jean Cocteau, novelist Louise de Vilmorin, journalist Michel Déon, and Edmonde Charles-Roux. Michel Déon sat for hours with Chanel interviewing her for his book, which she adamantly rejected afterward. Bowing to her wishes, he never published it and claims to have destroyed the manuscript. Even Chanel’s lifelong best friend, Misia Sert, encountered similar resistance. When Sert was about to pub- lish her own memoirs, Chanel insisted at the last minute that she excise the entire section devoted to their friendship. Charles-Roux’s biography, L’Irrégulière, remains among the best, although Chanel angrily repudiated both the book and her friend, Madame Charles-Roux, upon its publication. Chanel’s longtime friend, assistant, and chief stylist Lilou Marquand told me that Chanel wanted to make it illegal for anyone to write her biography, and tried to have her attorney René de Chambrun draw up an official document to formalize this impossible injunction. A few other writers and one movie producer told me that they, too, had begun and later given up on projects about Chanel’s life, so difficult did it become both legally and personally (even long after Mademoiselle’s death).

Among some of the biographers who succeeded in publishing their work on Chanel, a curious—even eerie—phenomenon prevails: The authors seem to permit their subject to overtake them entirely, almost as if through spirit possession. Jean Cocteau’s brief essay on Chanel features this stylistic oddity; it is written in the first person, as if spoken by Coco herself. But his is not the only one. Paul Morand, whose book The Allure of Chanel also stands among the finest (for its style rather than accuracy), results from a series of interviews between them (published only after Chanel’s death), but is written, as is Cocteau’s essay, in the first person, as if Coco had told the story herself.

Louise de Vilmorin, who’d been a close friend of Chanel’s, produced her Memoirs of Coco in 1971, and here, once more, the text is written in the first person, in the voice of Mademoiselle, though Chanel withdrew her approval of the manuscript when it was done and tried to block its publication legally. And while Justine Picardie’s 2010 biography, Chanel: The Legend and the Life, does not indulge in that peculiar, ventriloquized Cha- nel voice, Picardie does tiptoe into the realm of the occult.

Picardie, who received permission to spend a night in Chanel’s suite at the Ritz, has recounted a possible encounter with the ghost of Mademoiselle. According to Picardie, after she retired for the night in Chanel’s bed, all kinds of eerie mischief broke loose: A bulb burst out of a wall sconce; lights in the room began flickering on and off by themselves; doors rattled; voices murmured; and mysterious footsteps echoed in the corridor. Although told in a slightly tongue-in-cheek style, the episode seems designed to convey Chanel’s ongoing unearthly power, her tendency to invade anyone who dares write of her.

It may be that, faced with the depths of obfuscation Chanel practiced to shield the truth of her life, some biographers simply gave over their voices to Coco to signal that they could not determine an objective truth—that they were yielding to Chanel’s ongoing theatrical mono- logue about her life. But something more happens in these books; their transmission of Coco’s voice is too absolute, too startling, and happens too often to be the result of a mere stylistic coincidence. On the contrary, this biographical ventriloquism is nothing less than the literary version of Chanel’s stylistic revolution. That is, just as Chanel succeeded in making half the world wish to copy her, she seduced her biographers into channeling her voice. Chanel wills herself (sometimes even posthumously) to be reproduced by and through others. She truly embodies the spirit of mimetic contagion.

No one writing about Chanel proves completely immune to this seductive force of hers, and I confess I’ve had my moments. Few women raised on fashion magazines could mount the famous mirrored spiral staircase at the House of Chanel without a little inward gasp, without stopping for a moment to compose themselves as I did when climbing those noiseless, plush, beige-carpeted stairs. And thanks to the gracious staff of the Conservatoire Chanel (renamed in 2011 the Direction du Patrimoine Chanel), I have also experienced the thrill of examining Co- co’s personal jewelry collection, handling (and yes, trying on) her giant emerald ring (the stone a gift from the Duke of Westminster) and ruby- encrusted bracelet.

I have donned one of Romy Schneider’s original Chanel jackets, and I have spent time in the famous rue Cambon studio and adjacent apartment. There, I even tried on Mademoiselle’s spectacles and experienced firsthand their vertiginously strong prescription.

I knew I had to rein myself in, though, the night I interviewed Chanel’s longtime friend Lilou Marquand at her home in Paris. After spending hours talking with me, Madame Marquand began pulling Chanel clothes out of her closets and having me try them on. By evening’s end I was decked out in a sleek cream tweed coat (circa 1958) with Coco’s own white mousseline scarf tied dashingly (by Lilou) around my neck. Stylist that she still is in her late eighties, Madame Marquand insisted on taking photographs of me, and ran around her apartment adjusting the lighting and shouting posing instructions. I had the time of my life. As I left, Ma- dame Marquand insisted that I keep the scarf, which Coco had made for herself out of the hem of one of her own chiffon evening dresses. I floated home through the streets of Paris, letting my sixty-year-old scarf fly out behind me in the night breeze. I had succumbed—not only to the charm of my interview subject and the eternal pleasure of dress-up games—but also to the idea that I was wearing a relic, an object of nearly religious significance, a piece of French civilization as foundational as the Arènes de Lutèce, the stone ruins of a Roman arena hidden in Paris’s fifth arrondissement.

The next day, realizing how easily ensorcelled I’d been by this bit of Chanel mania, I rededicated myself to my goal here, which is to under- stand the process that had ensnared me: the mechanics behind this will to copy and to be copied, the will toward emulation, the reverence for long- dead charismatic individuals—in short, the uncanny historical reach of Coco Chanel.

Given how meticulously Chanel effaced her “true” self, to write an- other traditional biography of her would be misguided, an exercise in pinning down a ghost. After reading an early version of this manuscript, my editor pronounced Coco “the hole in the center of her own story.” She was right. Chanel seems sometimes to recede, to disappear from the grasp of those who try to explain her. Therein, though, lies the power of her life. In her zeal to fit in, Chanel dissolved and re-created herself a thousand times. But more important, she figured out a way to let other women do that, too. The Chanel persona and design universe beckon us to insert our own narratives into the blank space Coco left for us. That hole where her life should be is actually a seductive invitation. Like the painted pasteboard figures with cutout faces found at carnivals—behind which tourists pose for novelty self-portraits, “disguised” as pioneer wives or Victorian ladies—Chanel asks us to insert ourselves into her persona, to meld our own biography with hers.

Chanel’s close friend Jean Cocteau understood this phenomenon perfectly. In 1933 he published a cartoon portrait of her for Le Figaro il- lustré, omitting her face entirely. Coco’s identity communicates itself through the casually regal pose of the body, the distinctively bobbed hair, and, of course, everything she’s wearing: the strands of pearls, the gathered bow of the blouse, the softly draped jacket, the knee-length skirt. Cocteau’s drawing brilliantly hints at Chanel’s implicit invitation to other women to insert their own faces into the blank space, to enter into a dialogue or communion with Coco, without fear of losing themselves completely—without “losing face.” The longevity and appeal of Chanel’s aesthetic depend, in fact, upon just how easy this process is.

Map of Heaven by Doctor Eben Alexander – Extract

Imagine a young couple at their wedding. The ceremony is over, and everyone is crowding around on the church steps for a photo. But the couple, at this particular moment, doesn’t notice them. They’re too concerned with each other. They are looking deep into each others eyes—the windows of the soul, as Shakespeare called them.

Deep. A funny word to describe an action that we know can’t really be deep at all. Sight is a strictly physical affair. Pho- tons of light strike the retinal wall at the rear of the eye, a mere inch or so behind the pupil, and the information they deliver is then translated into electrochemical impulses that travel along the optic nerve to the visual processing center in the rear of the brain. It’s an entirely mechanical process.

But of course, everyone knows just what you mean when you say you’re looking deep into someone’s eyes. You’re seeing that person’s soul—that part of the human being that the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus was talking about some 2,500 years ago when he wrote: “You would not find the limits of the soul even if you travelled forever, so deep and vast is it.” Illusion or not, it is a powerful thing to glimpse that depth when it presents itself.

We see this depth manifested most powerfully on two occasions: when we fall in love, and when we see someone die. Most people have experienced the first, while fewer, in our society where death is so shunted out of sight, have experienced the second. But medical people and hospice workers who see death regularly will know immediately what I’m talking about. Suddenly where there was depth there is now only surface. The living gaze—even if the person in question was very old and that gaze was vague and flickering—goes flat.

We see this when an animal dies, too. The direct avenue into what the twentieth-century scholar of religions Titus Burckhardt called “the inward realm of the soul” goes dead, and the body becomes, in essence, like an unplugged appliance.

So imagine that bride and groom looking into each others eyes, and seeing that bottomless depth. The shutter snaps. The image is captured. A perfect shot of a perfect pair of young newlyweds.

Now jump ahead half a dozen decades. Imagine that this couple had kids, and that those kids had kids of their own. The man in the picture has died, and the woman now lives alone in an assisted living facility. Her kids visit her, she has friends at the facility, but sometimes, like right now, she feels alone.

It’s a rainy afternoon, and the woman, sitting by her window, has picked up that photo from where it sits in a frame on a side table. In the gray light filtering in, she looks at it. The photo, like the woman herself, has taken a long journey to get there. It started out in a photo album that was passed on to one of their children, then went into a frame and came with her when she moved to the facility. Though it’s fragile, a little yellowed and bent at the edges, it has survived. She sees the young woman she was, looking into the eyes of her new husband, and remembers how at that moment he was more real to her than anything else in the world.

Where is he now? Does he still exist?

On good days, the woman knows he does. Surely the man she loved so much for all those many years could not have simply vanished when his body died. She knows—vaguely— what religion has to say on the matter. Her husband is off in heaven: a heaven that, through years of more or less steady church attendance, she has professed belief in. Though deep down she has never been all that sure.

So on other days—days like today—she doubts. For she also knows what science has to say on this matter. Yes, she loved her husband. But love is an emotion, an electrochemical reaction that goes on deep inside the brain, releasing hormones into the body, dictating our moods, telling us whether to be happy or sad, joyous or desolate.

In short, love is unreal.

What is real? Well, that’s obvious. The molecules of steel and chrome and aluminum and plastic in the chair she sits in; the carbon atoms that make up the paper of the photo she holds in her hand; the glass and wood of the frame that protects it. And of course the diamond on her engagement ring and the gold of which both it and her wedding ring are made: those are real, too.

But the perfect, whole, and everlasting bond of love be- tween two immortal souls that these rings are meant to signify? Well, that’s all just pretty-sounding fluff. Solid, tangible matter: that’s what’s real. Science says so.

The inside is your true nature.

—Al-Ghazali, eleventh-century Islamic mystic

The root of the word reality is the Latin word res—“thing.” The things in our lives like car tires, skillets, soccer balls, and backyard swing sets are real to us because they possess a day-in, day-out consistency. We can touch them, weigh them in our hands, put them down, and come back later and find them unchanged, right where we left them.

We, of course, are made of matter as well. Our bodies are made of elements like hydrogen, the earliest and simplest element, and more complex ones like nitrogen, carbon, iron, and magnesium. All of these were cooked up—created—at inconceivable pressure and heat, in the hearts of ancient, now long-dead stars. Carbon nuclei have six protons and six neutrons. Of the eight positions in its outer shell where its electrons orbit, four are occupied by electrons, and four are vacant, so that electrons from other atoms or elements can link up with the carbon atom by binding their own electrons to those empty positions. This particular symmetry allows carbon atoms to link together with other carbon atoms, as well as other kinds of atoms and molecules, with fantastic efficiency. Both organic chemistry and biochemistry—massive subjects that dwarf chemistry’s other subsets—are exclusively devoted to studying chemical interactions involving carbon. The entire chemical structure of life on earth is based on carbon and its unique attributes. It is the lingua franca of the organic chemical world. Thanks to this same symmetry, carbon atoms, when submitted to tremendous pressure, lock together with a new tenacity, transforming from the black, earthy stuff we associate it with into that most powerful natural symbol of durability, the diamond.

But though the atoms of carbon and the handful of other elements that make up most of our bodies are all essentially immortal, our bodies themselves are transient in the extreme. New cells are born and old ones die. At every moment our bodies are taking matter from, and giving it back to, the physical world around us. Before long—the blink of an eye on a cosmic scale—our bodies will go back into the cycle entirely. They will rejoin the flux of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, calcium, and other primary substances that build up and disintegrate, again and again, here on earth.

This insight is nothing new, of course. The word human itself comes from the same root as humus, earth. So too does humble, which makes sense because the best way of staying humble is to realize what you’re made of. Long before science came along to explain the minute details of how it happens, cultures all around the world knew that our bodies are made from earth, and that when we die our bodies go back to it. As God says to Adam—a name itself derived from the Hebrew word adamah —“earth”—in Genesis: “Dust thou art, and to dust thou will return.”

Yet we humans have never been completely happy with this situation. The whole history of humanity can be seen as our response to this apparent earthiness of ours, and the feelings of pain and incompletion that it creates. We suspect that there is something more to the story.

Modern science—the latest and by far the most powerful of our responses to this ancient restlessness about our mortality—grew in large part out of an ancient technique of manipulating chemicals called alchemy. The origins of alchemy are lost in history. Some say it began in ancient Greece. Others say the first alchemists lived much earlier, perhaps in Egypt, and that the name itself derives from the Egyptian Al- Kemi or “black earth”—presumably a reference to the black, fertile soil on the banks of the Nile.

There were Christian alchemists, Jewish alchemists, Muslim alchemists, and Taoist or Confucian alchemists. It was simply everywhere. Wherever and whenever it did begin, alchemy grew into a fantastically complex and widespread series of practices. Most of these were concerned with turning “base” metals like copper and lead into gold. But the prime goal of alchemy was recovering the state of immortality that the alchemists believed humankind originally possessed, but lost long ago.

Many of the tools and methods of modern chemistry were invented by alchemists, often at considerable risk. Messing around with physical matter can be dangerous, and in addition to poisoning or blowing themselves up, alchemists risked getting in trouble with the local religious powers. Like the science it gave rise to, alchemy was, especially in Europe in the years leading up to the Scientific Revolution, a heresy.

One of the major discoveries of the alchemists in the course of their quest for immortality was that when you submit a chemical or element to what alchemists called a “trying” process—if you heat it, say, or combine it with some other chemical with which it is reactive—it will turn into something else. Like so many other gifts from the past, this knowledge sounds obvious to us now, but this is only because we didn’t do the work to discover it to begin with.

The first age was golden.


Why were the alchemists so interested in gold? One reason is obvious. The lesser alchemists— those who didn’t understand the deeper, underlying spiritual element at work in it—were simply trying to become rich. But the real alchemists were interested in gold for another reason.

Gold, like carbon, is an unusual element. The nucleus of the gold atom is very large. With seventy-nine protons, only four other stable elements are heavier. This big positive electrical charge causes the electrons that circle the nucleus of the gold atom to move at exceptional speed—approximately half the speed of light. If a photon comes to earth from the sun, the heavenly body most associated with gold in the alchemical texts, and bounces off an atom of gold, and that photon then happens to enter into one of our eyes and strikes the retinal wall, the message this delivers to the brain creates a curiously pleasant sensation in our consciousness. We humans react strongly to gold, and always have.

Gold powers much of the economic activity on our planet. It is beautiful and it is relatively rare, yet it has no great utilitarian value—nothing like the one we have placed on it, in any case. We have, as a species, decided it has value; that’s all. That’s why alchemists, both through their material experiments and the inner, meditative practices that often accompanied those experiments, sought it so desperately. Gold, for them, was the solidified, tangible representation of the heavenly part of the human being—the immortal soul. They sought to recover that other side of the human being—the golden side that joins with the earthy side to make us the people we are.

We are one part earth and one part heaven, and the alchemists knew this.

We need to know it, too.

Qualities, like the “beauty” of gold, and even its very color, are, we have been taught, not real. Emotions, we have been taught, are even less real. They’re just reactive patterns generated by our brains in response to hormonal messages sent by our bodies in response to situations of danger or desire.

Love. Beauty. Goodness. Friendship. In the worldview of materialist science, there is no room for treating these things as realities. When we believe this, just as when we believe it when we are told that meaning isn’t real, we lose our connection to heaven—what writers in the ancient world sometimes called the “golden thread.”

We get weak.

Love, beauty, goodness, and friendship are real. They’re as real as rain. They’re as real as butter, as real as wood, or stone, or plutonium, or the rings of Saturn, or sodium nitrate. On the earthly level of existence, it’s easy to lose sight of that.

But what you lose, you can get back.

Unlettered peoples are ignorant of many things, but they are seldom stupid because, having to rely on their memories, they are more likely to remember what is important. Literate peoples, by contrast, are apt to get lost in their vast libraries

of recorded information.*

—Huston Smith, Religion Scholar * Smith, The Way Things Are, 79.

Human beings have been around in our modern form for about one hundred thousand years. For most of this time, three questions have been intensely important to us:

Who are we?

Where did we come from? Where are we going?

For the vast majority of our time on this planet, human beings didn’t doubt for a moment that the spiritual world was real. We believed that it was the place each of us came from when we were born, and that it was the place we would return to when we died.

Many scientists today think we are right on the verge of knowing just about everything there is to know about the universe. There is much talk these days, among certain of these scientists, of a “Theory of Everything.” A theory that will ac- count for every last bit of data about the universe that we currently possess: a theory that, as the name suggests, will explain it all.

But there’s something rather curious about this theory. It doesn’t include answers to a single one of those three questions listed above: the questions that, for 99.9 percent of our time on earth, were the three most important ones to answer. This Theory of Everything makes no mention of heaven.

The word heaven originally meant, simply, “sky.” That is what the word that translates as “heaven” in the New Testament means. The Spanish word for heaven, cielo, also means “sky,” and comes from the same root that our word ceiling does as well. Though we now know that heaven isn’t literally up there, many of us continue to sense that there is a dimension or dimensions that are “above” the earthly world in the sense that they are “higher” in a spiritual sense. When I use “heaven” in this book, and talk about it being “above” us, I am doing so with the understanding that no one today thinks heaven is simply up there in the sky, or that it is the simple place of clouds and eternal sunshine that the word has come to conjure up. I am speaking in terms of another kind of geography: one that is very real, but also very different from the earthly one we are familiar with, and in comparison to which the entire observable physical dimension is as a grain of sand on a beach. There is another group out there today—a group that also includes many scientists—that also believes we might indeed be on the verge of discovering a Theory of Everything. But the Theory of Everything that this group is talking about is quite different from the one that materialist science thinks it’s on the verge of discovering.

This other theory will be different from the first one in two major ways.

The first is that it will posit that we can’t ever really have a Theory of Everything, if by that we mean an aggressive, materialist, data-oriented one.

The second difference is that, in this other Theory of Everything, all three of those original, all-important primordial questions about the human condition will be addressed. Heaven will be included in it.

I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.

—Max Planck (1858–1947), Quantum Physicist

In the twentieth century, after three fantastically successful centuries, science—in particular, the branch of science known as physics—got a surprise. Deep down, at the very heart of matter, it found something it couldn’t explain. It turned out that “matter,” that stuff that science thought it understood so well, wasn’t what science had thought it was at all. Atoms—those unbreakable, rock-solid little objects that science had thought were the ultimate building blocks of the world—turned out to be not so solid, or so unbreakable, after all. Matter turned out to be a dazzlingly intricate matrix of super-powerful but nonmaterial forces. There was nothing material to it.

It got even weirder. If there was one thing that science thought it knew as well as matter, it was space—the area that matter moved around in, nice and simple. But space wasn’t really “there,” either. At least not in the simple, straightforward, easy-to-understand way that scientists had thought it was. It bent. It stretched. It was inextricably linked with time. It was anything but simple.

Then, as if that weren’t enough, another factor entered into the picture: a factor that science had long known about, but had up until then displayed no interest in. In fact, science had only coined a word for this phenomenon in the seventeenth century, even though the world’s prescientific peoples all placed it at the center of their view of reality and had dozens of words for it.

This new factor was consciousness—that simple, yet supremely unsimple fact of being aware—of knowing oneself and the world around one.

No one in the scientific community had the remotest idea what consciousness was, but this hadn’t been a problem be- fore. Scientists just left it out of the picture—because, they said, being unmeasurable, consciousness wasn’t real. But in the 1920s, quantum mechanical experiments revealed not only that you could detect consciousness, but that, at a subatomic level, there was no way of not doing so, because the consciousness of the observer actually bound the observer to all he or she observed. It was an irremovable part of any scientific experiment.

This was a staggering revelation—despite the fact that most scientists still chose, by and large, to ignore it. Much to the chagrin of the many scientists who believed they were right on the edge of explaining everything in the universe from a completely materialistic perspective, consciousness now moved right to the center of the stage and refused to be pushed aside. As the years went on and scientific experimentation at the subatomic level—a domain known, in general, as quantum mechanics—became ever more sophisticated, the key role that consciousness played in every experiment became ever clearer, if still impossible to explain. As the Hungarian- American theoretical physicist Eugene Wigner wrote: “It was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness.” The Spanish mathematical physicist Ernst Pascual Jordan put the matter even more forcefully: “Observations,” he wrote, “not only disturb what is to be measured, they produce it.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that we make reality with our imaginations; but it does mean that consciousness is so tied up with reality that there is no way of conceiving reality without it. Consciousness is the true bedrock of existence.

The physics community has yet to interpret what the results of experiments in quantum mechanics reveal about the workings of the universe. The brilliant founding fathers of the field, including Werner Heisenberg, Louis de Broglie, Sir James Jeans, Erwin Schrödinger, Wolfgang Pauli, and Max Planck, were driven into mysticism in their efforts to fully comprehend the results of their experiments about the workings of the subatomic world. According to the “measurement problem,” consciousness plays a crucial role in determining the nature of evolving reality. There is no way to separate the ob- server from the observed. The reality portrayed by experiments in quantum mechanics is completely counterintuitive from what one might expect based on our daily lives in the earthly realm. A deeper understanding and interpretation will require a thorough reworking of our concepts of consciousness, causality, space, and time. In fact, a robust enhancement of physics that fully embraces the reality of consciousness (soul or spirit) as the basis of all that is will be necessary to transcend the profound enigma at the heart of quantum physics.

I maintain that the human mystery is incredibly demeaned by scientific reductionism, with its claim in promissory materialism to account eventually for all of the spiritual world in terms of patterns of neuronal activity. This belief must be classed as a superstition. . . . we have to recognize that we are spiritual beings with souls existing in a spiritual world as well as material beings with bodies and brains existing in a material world.

— Sir John c. Eccles (1903–1997), Neuro Physiologist

No description of the nature of reality can even begin before we have a much clearer view of the true nature of consciousness, and its relationship to emerging reality in the physical realm. We could make greater progress if those trained in physics would also jump headlong into the study of what some scientists have called the “hard problem of consciousness.” The essence of the hard problem is that modern neuroscience assumes that the brain creates consciousness out of its sheer complexity. However, there is absolutely no explanation that suggests any mechanism by which this occurs. In fact, the more research we do on the brain, the more we realize that consciousness exists independently of it. Roger Penrose, Henry Stapp, Amit Goswami, and Brian Josephson are notable examples of physicists who have pursued an incorporation of consciousness into physics models, but most of the physics community remains oblivious to the more esoteric levels of inquiry required.

The day science begins to study nonphysical phenomena, it will make more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries of its existence.

—Nikola Tesla (1856–1943)

The new theory—the new “Map of Everything” that I am so in favor of—will include all the revolutionary discoveries that science has made in the last century, most especially the new discoveries about the nature of matter and space and the revolutionary discoveries of the centrality of consciousness that threw materialistic science into such chaos at the beginning of the twentieth century. It will address discoveries like that of the physicist Werner Heisenberg that subatomic particles are never actually in one place, but occupy a constant state of statistical probability—so that they might be here, or they might be there, but they can never be totally nailed down to a single, no-doubt-about-it spot. Or that a photon—a unit of light—will appear as a wave if we measure it in one way, and as a particle if we measure it in another way, even while remaining exactly the same photon. Or discoveries like Erwin Schrödinger’s that the outcome of certain subatomic experiments will be determined by the consciousness of the observer recording them in such a way that they can actually “reverse” time, so that an atomic reaction set off inside a box that was sealed three days previously will not actually complete itself until the box is opened and the results of the action are noted by a conscious observer. The atomic reaction stays in a suspended state of both happening and not happening until consciousness enters the picture and cements it into reality.

This new Map of Everything will also include the vast quantities of data that are coming in from a whole other area of research, one that materialist science paid even less attention to in the past than it did to consciousness, and that dogmatic religion resolutely ignored as well: Near-death experiences. Deathbed visions. Moments of apparent contact with departed loved ones. The whole world of strange but totally real encounters with the spiritual world that people experience all the time, but that neither dogmatic science nor dogmatic religion has allowed us to talk about.

The kind of events that people talk to me about all the time.

Dear Dr. Alexander,

 I loved reading about your experience. It reminded me of my fathers near death experience four years before he passed away.

 My dad had a PhD in astrophysics and was absolutely 100% “scientifically minded before his near death experience.

He was in a pretty bad way in intensive care. He had trodden an emotionally hard path in life and fallen prey to alcoholism, until many of his body organs packed up and he caught double pneumonia. He was in intensive care for three months. During that time, he spent a while in an induced coma. When he started to recover he began to relay his experience of being with angel- like beings who were communicating to him not to worry and that everything was going to be fine. They said he would get better and continue his life. He said they were helping him and that he was no longer afraid of dying. He used to tell me, after he recovered, not to worry when he did die and to know that he would be fine.

. . . [H]e changed massively after his experience. He didn’t drink anymore, but . . . speaking about it was too much for him . . . he was a very private man. . . . He died of a tear in his aorta very suddenly at home in his sleep, four years after his stay in hospital. We kept finding Post-It notes around his

house after he died—“GaHf.” In the end, we deduced it to mean “Guardian angels. Have faith.” Maybe this had helped him in his abstinence. It maybe helped him to remember the comfort he had felt while out of his body.

Soon before he died I remember asking him what he thought happens when we actually die. He said he didn’t really know, and that it was just something that we as humans haven’t found out yet, but we will. I guess he had experienced the place where science and spirituality meet. It was a real comfort

to read your experience and it reaffirmed to me my dad’s experience too.

Many thanks,


Why do people tell me stories like this? The answer is simple. I’m a doctor who had an NDE—a solid member of the “dogmatic science” side of the room, who had an experience that sent him over to the other side. Not the “dogmatic religion” side, but a third side of the room, if you will: a side that believes science and religion both have things to teach us, but that neither has, or ever will, have all the answers. This side of the room believes that we are on the edge of something genuinely new: a marriage of spirituality and science that will change the way we understand and experience ourselves forever.

In Proof of Heaven, I described how the sudden onset of a very rare strain of bacterial meningitis put me in a hospital, and a deep coma, for seven days. During that time, I under- went an experience that I am still in the process of absorbing and comprehending. I journeyed through a series of supra- physical realms, each one more extraordinary than the last.

In the first, which I call the Realm of the Earthworm’s- Eye View, I was immersed in a primitive, primordial state of consciousness that felt, while I was in it, something like being buried in earth. It was, however, not ordinary earth, for all around me I sensed—and sometimes heard and saw—other forms, other entities. It was part horrific, part comforting

(I felt like I was, and always had been, a part of this primitive murk). I am often asked, “Was this hell?” I would expect hell to be at least a little bit interactive, and this was nothing of the sort. Even though I didn’t remember earth, or even what a human was, I at least had a sense of curiosity. I would ask, “Who? What? Where?” and there was never a flicker of response.

Eventually, a being of light—a circular entity that gave off a beautiful, heavenly music that I called the Spinning Melody—came slowly down from above, throwing off marvelous filaments of living silver and golden light. The light opened up like a rip in the fabric of that coarse realm, and I felt myself going through the rip, like a portal, up into a staggeringly beautiful valley full of lush and fertile greenery, where waterfalls flowed into crystal pools. I found myself as a speck of awareness on a butterfly wing among pulsing swarms of millions of other butterflies. I witnessed stunning blue-black velvety skies filled with swooping orbs of golden light, which I later called angelic choirs, leaving sparkling trails against billowing, colorful clouds. Those choirs produced hymns and anthems far beyond anything I had ever encountered on earth. There was also a vast array of larger universes that took the form of what I came to call an “over-sphere,” that was there to help in imparting the lessons I was to learn. The angelic choirs provided yet another portal to higher realms. I ascended until I reached the Core, that deepest sanctum sanctorum of the Divine—infinite inky blackness, filled to overflowing with in- describable divine unconditional love. There I encountered the infinitely powerful, all-knowing deity whom I later called Om, because of the sound I sensed so prominently in that realm. I learned lessons of a depth and beauty entirely beyond my capacity to explain. Throughout my time in the Core, there was always the strong sense of there being three of us (the infinite Divine, the brilliant orb, and pure conscious awareness).

During this voyage, I had a guide. She was an extraordinarily beautiful woman who first appeared as I rode, as that speck of awareness, on the wing of that butterfly in the Gateway Realm. I’d never seen this woman before. I didn’t know who she was. Yet her presence was enough to heal my heart, to make me whole in a way I’d never known was possible. Without actually speaking, she let me know that I was loved and cared for beyond measure and that the universe was a vaster, better, and more beautiful place than I could ever have dreamed. I was an irreplaceable part of the whole (like all of us), and all the sadness and fear I had ever known in the past was a result of my somehow having forgotten this most central of facts.

Dear Dr. Alexander,

Thirty-four years ago I had a NDE—but it wasn’t me who was dying. My mother was. She was being treated for cancer at the hospital and the doctors there told us she had at most six months to live. It was Saturday, and I was set to fly from Ohio to New Jersey on Monday. I was out in my garden, when suddenly this feeling went through me. It was overwhelming. It was a feeling of an unbelievable amount of love. It was the best “high” you could possibly imagine. I stood up, wondering: What on earth was that? Then it went through me again. It happened three times in all. I knew my mother had passed. The feeling was like she was hugging me but going right through me. And every time she did, I felt this supernatural, unbelievable, immeasurable amount of love.

I went into my house, still in a fog as to what had happened. I sat down by the phone to wait for the call from my sister. After ten minutes the phone rang. It was my sister. “Mom passed away,” she said.

Even 30 years later I can’t tell this story without crying—not from sadness so much as joy. Those three moments in the garden changed my life for good. Since then, I haven’t feared death. I’m actually jealous of people who have passed away. (I know that sounds weird but it’s true.)

Back when this happened we didn’t have all these TV shows and books about NDEs. They weren’t the public phenomenon they are today. So I had no idea of what to think of it. But I knew it was real.

Jean Hering

When I returned from my journey (a miracle in itself, de- scribed in detail in Proof of Heaven), I was in many ways like a newborn child. I had no memories of my earthly life, but knew full well where I had been. I had to relearn who, what, and where I was. Over days, then weeks, like a gently falling snow, my old, earthly knowledge came back. Words and language returned within hours and days. With the love and gentle coaxing of my family and friends, other memories came back. I returned to the human community. By eight weeks my prior knowledge of science, including the experiences and learning from more than two decades spent as a neurosurgeon in teaching hospitals, returned completely. That full recovery remains a miracle without any explanation from modern medicine.

But I was a different person from the one I had been. The things I had seen and experienced while gone from my body did not fade away, as dreams and hallucinations do. They stayed. And the longer they stayed, the more I realized that what had happened to me in the week I spent beyond my physical body had rewritten everything I thought I knew about all of existence. The image of the woman on the butter- fly wing stayed with me, haunting me, just as did all the other extraordinary things I’d encountered in those worlds beyond.

Four months after coming out of my coma, I received a picture in the mail. A photograph of my biological sister Betsy—a sister I’d never known because I had been adopted at a young age and Betsy had died before I had sought out and reunited with my biological family. The photo was of Betsy. But it was also of someone else. It was the woman on the butterfly wing.

The moment I realized this, something crystallized inside me. It was almost as if, since coming back, my mind and soul had been like the amorphous contents of a butterfly chrysalis:

I could not return to what I had been before, but I could not move forward, either. I was stuck.

That photo—as well as the sudden shock of recognition I felt when I gazed at it was the confirmation that I’d needed. From then on, I was back in the old, earthly world I’d left behind before my coma struck, but as a genuinely new person.

I had been reborn.

But the real journey was just beginning. More is revealed to me every day—through meditation, through my work with new technologies that I hope will make it easier for others to gain access to the spiritual realm (see the appendix), and through talking with people I meet on my travels. Many, many people have glimpsed some of what I glimpsed, and experienced what I experienced. These people love to share their stories with me, and I love to hear them. It strikes them as wonderful that a long-standing member of the materialist scientific community could be changed as much as I have been. And I agree.

As an M.D. with a long career at esteemed medical institutions like Duke and Harvard, I was the perfect understanding skeptic. I was the guy who, if you told me about your NDE, or the visit you’d received from your dead aunt to tell you that all was well with her, would have looked at you and said, sympathetically but definitively, that it was a fantasy.

Countless people are having experiences like these. I meet them every day. Not just at the talks I give, but standing be- hind me in line at Starbucks and sitting next to me on air- planes. I have become, through the reach that Proof of Heaven achieved, someone whom people feel they can talk to about this kind of thing. When they do, I am always astonished at the remarkable unity and coherence of what they have to say. I am discovering more and more similarities between what these people tell me and what the peoples of the past believed. I am discovering what the ancients knew well: Heaven makes us human. We forget it at our peril. Without knowledge of the larger geography of where we came from and where we are going again when our physical bodies die, we are lost. That “golden thread” is the connection to the above that makes life here below not just tolerable but joyful. We are lost without it. My story is a piece of the puzzle—a further hint from the universe and the loving God at work in it that the time of bossy science and bossy religion is over, and that a new marriage of the better, deeper parts of the scientific and spiritual sensibilities is going to occur at last.

In this book, I share what I have learned from others— ancient philosophers and mystics, modern scientists, and many, many ordinary people like me—about what I call the Gifts of Heaven. These gifts are the benefits that come when we open ourselves to the single greatest truth that those before us knew: there is a larger world behind the one we see around us every day. That larger world loves us more than we can possibly imagine, and it is watching us at every moment, hoping that we will see hints in the world around us that it is there.

For a few seconds only, I suppose, the whole compartment was filled with light. This is the only way I know in which to describe the moment, for there was nothing to see at all. I felt caught up into some tremendous sense of being within a loving, triumphant and shining purpose. I never felt more humble. I never felt more exalted. A most curious but overwhelming sense possessed me and filled me with ecstasy. I felt that all was well for mankind—how poor the words seem! The word “well” is so poverty stricken. All men were shining and glorious beings who in the end would enter incredible joy. Beauty, music, joy, love immeasurable and a glory unspeakable, all this they would inherit. Of this they were heirs.

All this happened over fifty years ago but even now I can see myself in the corner of that dingy, third-class compartment

with the feeble lights of inverted gas mantles overhead. . . . In a few moments the glory departed—all but one curious, lingering feeling. I loved everybody in that compartment. It sounds silly now, and indeed I blush to write it, but at that moment I think I would have died for any one of the people in that compartment.*

* Religious Experience Research Center, account number 000385, quoted in Hardy, The Spiritual Nature of Man, 53.

My whole life has been a search for belonging. Growing up the son of a highly respected brain surgeon, I was constantly aware of the admiration-bordering-on-veneration that people have for surgeons. People worshipped my dad. Not that he encouraged it. A humble man with a strong Christian faith, he treated his responsibility as a healer with far too much weight to ever indulge in self-aggrandizement. I marveled at his humility and his deep sense of his own calling. I wanted nothing more than to be like him; to measure up; to become a member of the medical brotherhood that, in my eyes, had a sacred allure.

After years of hard work, I earned my way deep into that secular brother and sisterhood of surgeons. However, the spiritual faith that had come so easily and naturally to my father evaded me. Like many other surgeons in the modern world, I was a master of the physical side of the human being, and a complete innocent about the spiritual side. I simply didn’t believe it existed.

Then came my NDE, in 2008. What happened to me is an illustration of what is happening to us as a culture at large, as is each individual story I have heard from the people I’ve met. Each of us carries a memory of heaven, buried deep within us. Bringing that memory to the surface—helping you find your own map to that very real place—is the purpose of this book.