My talk on the Scottish Women’s Hospitals

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Scottish Women’s Hospitals Roll of Honour courtesy of Wikimedia commons

I am very proud and excited to announce that my talk on the Scottish Women’s Hospitals will be broadcast on Radio Adelaide 101.5 this coming Monday evening at 6pm on the segment On Service Voices.

Here is a link to the broadcast.

On Service Voices – Monday  02.12.19  from 6 to 7pm Adelaide Time (or listen again any time after 7pm)

DEBBIE ROBSON:  The SWH and the Aussie women who served in it.

This month 102 years ago, a British female doctor called Elsie Inglis died.  Elsie was almost 50 years old when World War One was declared. She offered her medical skills to the War Office, and was resoundingly rejected with the words, “My good lady, go home and sit still.”

Sitting still at home had never been one of Elsie’s strengths.  She contacted the Scottish Federation of Women’s Suffrage Societies with the intention of forming independent medical units staffed by women, in order to support Allied troops where they were needed most. She was able to establish the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service (the SWH), and they sent medical teams to Belgium, France, Serbia and Russia.  Many Australian women served in these units. They saved countless lives during WW1 and alleviated untold suffering. Today Debbie Robson brings us the story of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, and some of the Australians who served in them.

Please tune in and I hope you enjoy hearing about these marvellous women.

Out of the blue – a surprise request

Scottish Women's Hospital at Ostrovo

Scottish Women’s Hospital at Ostrovo – Source: Wikimedia Commons

I am so excited! I have been invited by Helen McLeod Meyer from Radio Adelaide to give a talk on the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for her Christmas Day 2019 Scottish Broadcast.

Since 2010 when I stumbled upon this marvellous organisation I have been inspired by what this group of women achieved 100 years ago. There is so much history I want to cover: how the organisation was formed, how they efficiently ran dressing stations and field hospitals in France, Corsica, Greece, Macedonia, Romania and in Serbia and how they raised the standards of hygiene and disease management in the theatre of war.

That’s just to name a few points. Don’t get me started on all the wonderful women that worked in the field hospitals, including several Australians – Chief Medical Officers, orderlies, ambulance drivers, sanitation workers, nurses and surgeons. I am looking forward to putting together a half hour talk. The challenge will be to limit myself to that time frame when there is so much to tell.

Centenary commemorations of Dr Elsie Inglis and of the Scottish Women’s Hospital Movement

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Descendants of pioneering Scotswoman Dr Elsie Inglis gathered at her grave today (within Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh) to mark the centenary of her death and pay tribute to her remarkable accomplishments in establishing and running the Scottish Women’s Hospitals during World War One. Photo source: Lenny Warren / Warren Media

The story of Elsie Inglis and The Scottish Women’s Hospitals is an amazing story that should be more widely known and I was so pleased to hear, earlier this year, that there would be Centenary commemorations for this marvellous woman at St Giles Cathedral on the 29th November. Although I couldn’t attend I was very excited to receive an invitation.

When war broke out in 1914 the Government put out a call for doctors and nurses to help on the front line. “Elsie was more than willing to play her part. She went first to the military authorities in Edinburgh and then to London to the War Office itself to offer her services, only to be told: “My good lady, go home and sit still.”

Of course she didn’t sit still. She went on to form what soon became known as the Scottish Women’s Hospitals which “served the war effort from 1914 to 1919 and were not finally disbanded until 1925. They started off in Calais supporting Belgian soldiers, but their main locations were four hospitals in France, two in Corsica, two in Greece, one in Macedonia, two in Romania and six in Serbia. There were also a number of satellite hospitals and dressing stations.

As a writer, discovering the existence of the SWH was life changing and of course led me to write a novel inspired by the movement and Australian women who worked at the field hospital in Ostrovo, including the novelist Miles Franklin. I am indebted to Alan Cumming for keeping me company on this journey of discovery and to Ann Wells for the gift of the booklet that was given out at the commemoration and from which I have quoted. Also for the use of the photo above. Luckily for historians and writers there are quite a few good biographies and memoirs written by members of the SWH. Contact me through this website and I can give you my full list.

 

Writing and the subconscious mind

John Sell Cottman Greta RiverThe subconscious for me, as a writer, is like a treasure chest. I might have deliberately or “unconsciously” stored stuff away that over the years I’ve forgotten about. It might be, for instance, a note to myself to read a book that for the life of me, I can’t see at the present moment that I need to read. Or as in the case of The Night Garden a book my subconscious has chosen for me.

It might be a memory or a fact that stays with me but I don’t know what to do with. In the 1990s I was doing research for my third manuscript with the working title of the The Nightingales. It was set over a period of twenty or so years from 1914 to 1937. Somewhere amidst all the pages I read and photocopied, was an account of a WWII army captain (from memory) who was on leave and on his honeymoon. The tyre blew out on their car whilst they were driving to their hotel. His bride died at the scene and later he killed himself in his hotel room. A simple thing for him to do as he had with him his full service kit.

The incident was seared into my subconscious but I didn’t expect I would be able to do anything with it. After all it was years after the period I was researching and at that time I wasn’t writing short stories. It wasn’t until 2013 that a friend asked me for a short story for an anthology he was putting together. The incident of the dead captain came straight to mind. Here was my chance to finally put him to rest. From that short story has come a new character and what I hope will be a series of short stories that I’m currently working on.

My new enigmatic character has memories from the first World War. This week I needed some idyllic memory that a soldier could go back to briefly, before he moved on to the next world. What came to my conscious mind? A bluebell wood I visited somewhere in England in 1976. I did some googling but they weren’t the sort of images I was looking for and the bluebell woods weren’t located in suitable places either. It was then I remembered a card of a bluebell wood I saved from twenty years ago.

It was a painting. Early morning I’m guessing with a green path leading to a wooden gate and bluebells spilling over the foreground. The light is diffused, almost healing in its otherworldliness. The painting was perfect to help me set the scene in my writing and I am so glad I saved the card.

These days I am more aware of things like this. If I get a little nudge to really take note of something, I obey my subconscious and write it down in my notebook, bookmark the page or as I’m doing now incorporate it into my blog.

Here is another nudge from my subconscious. It occurred last week at the Art Gallery of New South Wales exhibition of The Greats from the National Galleries of Scotland. Yes, here were a lot of paintings I had seen in art books during high school. 70 incredible sketches, paintings and watercolours spanning a period of 400 years from the Renaissance to Impressionism. Out of all these amazing artworks what stopped me in my tracks? The modest watercolour above – A pool in the River Greta near Rokeby.

The first thing I noticed was how modern the watercolour appeared to my eyes. Amazing to think Cotman painted it over two hundred years ago! Why did it have such an impact on me? I’m sure it is not just because it appears very modern. Maybe the beauty of the location and the name – Greta? There is a Greta north from where I live. It is a beautiful spot too. I can keep on speculating but the why of it ultimately doesn’t matter. I trust my subconscious. I’m sure it has its reasons.

Following the paper trail and/or reading and searching google & wikipedia

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Saint-Sulpice Library (now Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec), Saint-Denis Street in Montreal. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I’ve mentioned the paper trail before. It’s something that fascinates me but something I try to avoid when I’m writing. See How to Get Distracted Writing Historical Fiction. Today I am recovering from a small operation and I am not in the mindset to work on my fiction so I do what I normally do when I can’t write for various reasons. I read.

Less than a year ago I discovered crime fiction. Not the crime fiction that most people read but the crime fiction written by women in the 1950s and 1960s. For an historical novelist it is a wonderful world to discover, particularly for someone like me that has hardly ever read mysteries. The storylines are simpler than today’s books (burdened as they are with CSI, multiple plotlines, advanced technology etc). Instead these novels are peopled with interesting heroines and filled with everyday details that have now become historical fact. Think 10 cent jewellery stores and the road to Geneva early evening with not another car to be seen.

I began with Holly Roth (who is still my favourite) and devoured Shadow of a Lady, The Content Assignment, The Mask of Glass and The Sleeper. I was recently in Tasmania visiting the Salamanca Markets and was lucky enough to find a book by Helen McCloy, He Never Came Back, published in 1954 for only $2, (a 1961 green Penguin). I began reading the book and was not distracted until I got to this line on page 51. (A friend of the main character, Sara Dacre, has disappeared and she is worried. She is discussing what has happened with her aunt Caroline and an elderly man).

“It’s like bridge,” said Caroline. “You have to keep everything in your mind at once – past, present, and future. Book murders are more amusing than murders in real life, but, when it comes to disappearances, I don’t think any books have touched the real cases. Lord Bathurst, Marie Celeste, Charlie Ross, Dorothy Arnold. And Judge Crater.”

I knew of Marie Celeste of course and being female was immediately more interested in the disappearance of a woman than a man, so I honed in on Dorothy Arnold in google and came up with this entry in wikipedia. And so the paper trail unwinds and the book is left open at page 51.

It seems Dorothy Harriet Camille Arnold “was an American socialite who disappeared while walking on Fifth Avenue in New York City in December 1910. The circumstances surrounding her disappearance have never been resolved and her fate remains unknown.”

I read the entry and discovered a link to List of people who disappeared mysteriously and of course clicked on it. How many people can resist a link like that, I ask you? Definitely not me. As I’m researching and writing a trilogy set in Paris and Sydney in the 1920s, I clicked on the link to the 1920s and scanned through the names. Among them was Glenn and Bessie Hyde. I already knew about them from a novel I read a number of years ago. And as I type these words I’m off on another paper trail (web search) to find the title of the book. Voila! Grand Ambition by Lisa Michaels. It is an enthralling book and I highly recommend it.

I checked the other names and read about The Lost Battalion. Having recently completed a final edit of a novel set during WWI this was of particular interest. In 1921 Charles Whittlesey 37, “American soldier and Medal of Honor recipient who led the Lost Battalion in World War was last seen on the evening of 26 November 1921, on a passenger ship bound from New York City to Havana, and is presumed to have committed suicide by jumping overboard.”

On reading about the Lost Battalion I discovered that a pigeon named Cher Ami was responsible for saving the lives of 194 men by delivering a message whilst badly wounded, 25 miles to the rear of the action in just 25 minutes. How good is that?

Although the 1920s list is fascinating (and I will probably go back to it later) my eyes were drawn to the 1930s and the name Barbara Newhall Follett. She “was an American child prodigy novelist. Her first novel, The House Without Windows, was published in 1927 when she was thirteen years old. Her next novel, The Voyage of the Norman D., received critical acclaim when she was fourteen. In 1939, aged 25, she became depressed with her marriage and walked out of her apartment with just thirty dollars. She was never seen again.”

Of course you can probably guess what I did next. I read all about the child prodigy and decided I wanted to read her novel The House Without Windows. You can download it here. And so in the nature of paper trails (web searches) which often seem to be very Alice in Wonderland or Oscar Wildeish, we began with a 1950s crime novel and followed the trail to an American socialite, a long list of missing persons, took a detour rafting down the Grand Canyon, found a Lost Battalion, a Medal of Honour winner, an amazing pigeon, a child prodigy and ended up with what? A book of course! And I’m off to read the Helen McCloy after being rudely interrupted by a paper trail four hours ago.

Fiction writers as researchers and historians

Site of SWH camp from NW_-1

Site of SWH camp from NW – Photo courtesy of Nikiforos Sivenas

Yep! That’s what often happens to us historical fiction writers. We frequently become, by necessity, researchers and historians. Because I chose to write a novel set partly in Northern Greece and Serbia during the last 18 months of WWI, I am now fairly knowledgeable about the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, particularly the unit at Ostrovo.

Recently I started a page here on this blog to track the Australian women who worked with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. With the help of other researchers and historians I have now updated the list.

The bulk of the list is made up of biographies from the tireless Alan Cumming at the Scottish Women’s Hospitals website. A number are also from Jennifer Baker’s Looking for the Evidence website.

I now have some more searching to do. A new friend Nikiforos Sivenas, whose very elderly father still remembers the women of the Scottish Women’s Hospital field unit at Ostrovo, has kindly supplied photos and a list of all the women who worked at the Ostrovo Unit. It will take me some time but I hope to search all the names to find out whether they are Australian or not. I also plan to read Australian Doctors on the Western Front by Robert Likeman and The Women of Royaumont by Eileen Crofton to locate more. I just need a few more hours in my day!

My Adventures with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals

Scottish Women’s Hospitals Unit at Ostrovo – Source: Wikimedia Commons

I can’t believe that it’s nearly five years since I began thinking about a novel partly set in one of the field hospitals of the Macedonian Front. On Australia Day 2010 I did my first little field trip to scout for a family home for my main character. I walked Tyrrell and Wolfe streets that day but a month or two later decided on Mayfield, a suburb of Newcastle on the Hunter River. I barely knew a thing about the Macedonian front, that forgotten series of battlegrounds from WWI, but was determined to find out more. I skimmed through The Gardeners of Salonika by Alan Palmer, read up about the Australian nurses, orderlies and ambulance drivers who were there in Jan Bassett’s book Guns and Brooches. I also did more general reading about the war (including the excellent The Virago Book of Women and the Great War edited by Joyce Marlow) and found out details about the lives of not just Australian nurses but VADs.

My research into Australian VADs (Voluntary Aid Detachments – a sort of orderly, nurses’ aid and dogsbody) gave me information that turned out to be crucial to my plotting of The Grey Silk Purse. I actually had to change my storyline. In my early stages of research I decided my character Phyllis Summerville would become a VAD (her personality doesn’t lend her to the profession of nursing) and she would soon after be posted to France in the thick of all the fighting. WRONG! Australian VADs remained in Australia, working at hospitals looking after shell-shocked and disabled Australian serviceman, shipped home from the fighting. During 2010 I began interviewing residents about Mayfield after the war – obviously relying on memories their families may have passed down.

Through my research I met two very dear friends who helped me bring Mayfield to life – the late Helen Marshall and Vera Deacon, who is very knowledgeable about life on the islands in the Hunter River. In 2011 I decided to keep a blog of my struggles with the immense and intricate research that was needed for The Grey Silk Purse. On 16th June I wrote in my very first blog post: “At this stage it looks like my main character may be working at one of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals.” I had been inspired after discovering about the amazing Olive Kelso King and decided, yep, my girl would be working at one of the field hospitals of the SWH – Miles Franklin’s field unit as it turns out.

In 2012 I had a lot of research points to sort out. For instance, discovering as many Serbian words as I could that my main character would have spoken. (She was given a small Serbian phrasebook after her ambulance driver training). What was her driver’s uniform like? In which battle did my character Adrian Langley lose his leg? Would my young maid sleep at Summerville, the family home where she worked or would she go home? Were the Summervilles wealthy enough to have a chauffeur?

Around this time I met John Vandenberg, a wiki adviser and user, who gave me a crash course and said that if I didn’t put the Ostrovo Unit up on Wiki, the likelihood was that no-one else would. That started the ball rolling. I added Olive Kelso King as well, Dr Mary de Garis and just recently Dr Agnes Bennett. I knew, with dismay that there was no wiki entry for the Scottish Women’s Hospitals at that time. For me, it was just too big an undertaking – although by this time I had read many books on the subject.

Luckily last year I discovered Alan Cumming’s website www.scottishwomenshospitals.co.uk and he has done wonders in profiling the organisation, including travelling to Serbia. He has also been involved in a short film about the SWH. Last year Alan and I were able to work on the wiki entry for the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. I will be doing a biography on Kathleen Dillon soon. Although not Australian I relied quite heavily on her experience, as Head of the Transport Unit based at Yelak, for an important section in my manuscript. I am now actively seeking relatives of Australian women who worked for the SWH and will collaborate with Alan Cumming to get them up on his site. It has been a wonderful adventure discovering all about the Scottish Women’s Hospitals and I hope I can do more to raise awareness of this incredible and fascinating organisation. Please don’t hesitate to contact me. See this page for more information: Australians Working with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals.

Beginning the long journey of writing a new novel

Paris Next WeekYes, I know, I’ve just finished my manuscript The Grey Silk Purse and have made my first submission but I’m nervous. As a diversionary tactic I’m researching a new novel. I even have a title – Paris Next Week.

I’m at the absolute beginning which is always exciting. I have a vague idea about the plot and I have the two main locations – Sydney and Paris in the 1920s. I’ve just picked up my first book to read. It is Women, the Arts, and the 1920s in Paris and New York edited by Kenneth W. Wheeler and Virginia Lee Lussier and even after a quick glance it looks like the perfect ticket. The ship hasn’t docked yet but I already have a list of books to take on the voyage and some of these books may even help determine aspects of characterisation and plot.

That’s the fun of researching. You read to learn about something new. It may be Serbia in 1917, Port Stephens in 1942, England in the middle ages and as you find out more information you often stumble across an amazing fact that alters your writing completely.

Originally at the very start of The Grey Silk Purse I had a vague idea that my main character would be a nurse in Salonika, although something nagged at me that this profession wouldn’t suit my Miss Summerville. I began reading about the Australian nurses working there during WWI and discovered that other Australian nurses were working in Serbia, of all places! When the Australian troops were sent to France a lot of our girls were sent to the little known Macedonian Front. I began to read about Serbia in earnest and very quickly stumbled upon the wonderful Olive Kelso King who drove an ambulance. That was more like it. This is what my girl would have been doing!

Through reading I discovered not only the beautiful and very important location Lake Ostrovo for my novel but what my character did during the last year of the war. I read six memoirs of women involved in the Scottish Women’s Hospital and I drew from their knowledge to set the scenes for the most crucial chapters in the book – the why and wherefore of life in a field hospital. I can’t imagine the completed manuscript without all these facts now common knowledge to me. I don’t reveal them all of course but they are crucial to a lot of decisions I made (or my character makes) during the course of her war work.

I now have an even greater admiration for the women who were involved in this terrible conflict. We often talk about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We can now see that returned soldiers from all major offensives were victims but how did the women cope? We know the men either ended up in asylums or drank excessively after both world wars but what happened to the VADs, the ambulance drivers and the nurses when they returned to civilisation? That question is the driving force of the novel and it’s one I really couldn’t have asked without at least the basic facts behind me. So happy research reading. You’ll never know what you may stumble upon!

On Losing a Dear Friend

photoFrom the moment I started writing in the early 80s, talking to elderly people has been a very enjoyable part of my writing life. The first person I remember interviewing was a friend of the family of my first boyfriend. I was now a married woman (not to the first boyfriend) and beginning a novel that was later abandoned. From memory she was very interesting to talk to. (Her name escapes me now.) She had grown up in an old log cabin somewhere in the sticks and as a middle aged woman had written parodies of the romantic short stories featured in the Woman’s Day and the Woman’s Weekly at that time. The stories were actually accepted much to her amusement. I can’t remember her name but after our short interview I didn’t see her again.

In late 1982 or early 1983 I interviewed two wonderful WWI soldiers living in a retirement village in Collaroy.  One of them was a veritable minefield and I still have the notes I took from speaking with him. He was a sniper and told me some fascinating details not found in any history books. One interesting fact that concerned soldiers digging in under fire I actually used in my long short story The Running Lady published in Reveille in 1988.

In 2002 I was very lucky to be able to interview many elderly residents of Nelson Bay and Shoal Bay in regards to the US soldiers stationed there during WW2. At one stage I was driving up there once a fortnight to speak to someone about those fascinating times and I was always made to feel welcome. I think they enjoyed talking to me and I definitely enjoyed listening to them, including among many Mrs Blanch and Mrs Norburn.

In January 2010 I came up with the idea for a new novel and almost immediately I decided to set the novel, with the working title of The Grey Silk Purse, in Mayfield. I was unemployed for the first few weeks of that year and I spent a lot of time walking the streets and taking photos of beautiful old houses. I was also doing a lot of research on the net about the history of Mayfield. Two names repeatedly came up – Vera Deacon and Helen Marshall. I contacted Gionni di Gravio, the archivist at Newcastle University and asked him if it was okay to contact both of them. He said yes and told me where they lived.

I didn’t record the date I first rang Helen Marshall but we hit it off immediately and from May 2010 on I saw her quite regularly. I would visit her beautiful home in Elizabeth Street and mercilessly ask her questions. She loved talking about the old Mayfield and she would describe walks she went on with her father. I loved hearing about Mayfield as it was in the 30s and 40s and her memory was prodigious.

On one occasion she helped me map out a walk my character took near Platts Channel. She described in great detail a gate that led into the property of Argyle House (later the Murray Dwyer Orphanage). I explained what my character was doing. Helen described the gate for me, the latch and that there was lantana nearby. She could still remember the smell of the lantana. When I mentioned which way my heroine was walking home – up the steep slope by the side of the property to reach Bull Street – Helen told me that my heroine wouldn’t be opening the gate if she was going that way. I asked why and Helen explained that you only needed to open the gate to walk through the property if you were walking along by the channel. I was astonished that she could remember so much about a gate from around 1933 or so! I said as much and we had a good old laugh.

She also had very detailed memories of Waratah House which her father sketched before it was pulled down. On one of my visits Helen helped me mark out a map of the land near Platts Channel choosing the approximate location of Argyle House, Waratah House, the potteries, the ponds, the wheat field, a well and the dairy. (Not an easy feat with Industrial Drive and extensive industry transforming the landscape.)

Another day we actually designed the garden of the fictional house Summerville in Crebert Street. I still have the sketch in her hand. We also had some lovely talks over the Greg Ray books and an excellent book about the Middle East campaign of WWI. But apart from all this we were the best of friends. She wasn’t just an elderly lady with a fund of knowledge. She was someone that I knew I would have been life long best friends with in a parallel universe. As it was I only had less than three years to have lovely chats with Helen but I valued my time with her. I now miss her terribly.  Her quick wit and her kindness were a joy to me and I know it will take me quite some time to get used to the loss of her friendship. I can still hear her saying happily: “You clever girl!” or “You are devious!” when I explained some plot intricacies in my writing. I know she enjoyed our talks and I definitely did. I’m so grateful that I knew her, if only for a short time.

Arthur Streeton and the Battle of Amiens

I love hunting facts down, following paper trails and discovering interesting pieces of information. I mentioned in a previous blog that beginning my second draft of The Grey Silk Purse I had 98 points of research to check – things such as the location of the Niagara Cafe in Newcastle –
http://www.facebook.com/groups/LostNewcastle/permalink/506264069398435/
the weather in London on a December day in 1917, locations in Greece and various birds in the Hunter around 1920 to name some points.

Well I’m down to 10. Yay! and have been working on a very important research point – where my main male character Adrian Langley loses his leg. Before I could choose a location, I needed to choose a battalion for Adrian. I decided that although he is originally from Sydney, he actually joins up with his Mayfield cousins and in early 1917 becomes part of the 35th Battalion “Newcastle’s Own Regiment”.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/35th_Battalion_(Australia)

Immediately the battle of Lena Wood (see picture in link above) caught my eye and with the mention of woods I decided to research the landscape of the Battle of Amiens, August 1918 and quickly found Arthur Streeton’s wonderful painting above. The sight of the painting really changed my thinking and brought with it more questions. Why was the landscape so beautiful and not ravaged? Did Streeton purposely paint an unaffected area of the battle or was this his idealised vision of the pre battle scene? The woods look wonderful, the scenery is green. The whole thing evokes a pleasant summer stroll and that thought led me to recreating AND transforming Adrian’s loss of his leg in a dream. Here is what I wrote inspired by the painting above:

“…Sometimes too the beautiful woods near Amiens loom large in his dreams. Often he is alone, strolling not fighting. August 1918. A summer’s day in northern France. A feeling of peace, contentment and then a sniper parts the green that conceals him and sends an arc of bullets that tears the ground up in front of him, rips Adrian’s right leg apart and slams into his hip and shoulder. It would be better to dream of the way it was but his mind has condensed and transformed the incident until it is almost completely unrecognisable. At least he’s not surrounded by men dying beside him and he is thankful for that. They inhabit the other dreams. Not this one.”

By researching the landscape of Amiens I had found the place where my character loses his leg but it also gave me the opportunity (because of the beauty of the place) to set it against the muddy, soul destroying landscape of a previous battle. Adrian’s most terrible nightmares are from the Battle of Passchendaele where his battalion was bogged down in the mud and only 90 from 508 remained at the end but it is not where he receives wounds (at least not physically) that almost kill him and cripple him for life. Hopefully my future readers will appreciate the irony.