Sometimes a web search takes you into weird parallel universes. You don't need Phillip Pullman's Subtle Knife, you just need Google.
When you're writing historical fiction, sometimes you need to know some small historical detail - a fact about clothing or dates, or see an image of something which doesn't make sense described in a book.
There's always someone out there who is mad enough about the subject to spend hours creating websites devoted to it, and in loving detail. Often they are collectors whose depth of knowledge is simply astonishing. Sometimes they are academics or students whose work is complex and scarily deep. Or boffins. Once I needed to know if Blackfriars Station was used as an air-raid shelter in the war. Couldn't find out anywhere. So I emailed the webmaster of a local train enthusiasts' site, and his members provided me with details of rolling stock, bomb damage incidents, and even engine numbers. I wanted to fly over to London and kiss them all individually. And there's a marvellous PhD student in Malta who has answered all sorts of obscure long-distance questions for me about the fortifications in the Grand Harbour.
Sometimes the sites are run by wacky history re-enactors who deep down believe that they really are Vikings or Venetian courtesans or members of the RAF. Or they like dressing up as pirates and sailing about. All harmless fun.
But today was different. All I wanted to know, for a short story, was about the uniforms worn by a 1st lieutenant (Obersturmfuhrer) in the SS in 1942. Grey or black? Simple.
I didn't think it through. I just thought there'd be a few militaria collectors' sites with images.
But first you have to wade through sites like that of the Australian Waffen SS, for members of whatever the f*ck that is. Deeply weird and sad and frightening sites - can someone just show me a picture of a damn greatcoat - about Holocaust denial and the resurrection of Nazism and ...Oh God.
Of course you know it's there and still current, and it bursts like a boil from time to time, but it's rarely on the surface, rarely glimpsed, rarely acknowledged.
I might have to go read a nice pink fairy book to recover.
Give me dress-up pirates any day.