Brothers In the Sky

Wilbur (left) and Orville Wright.

The date is famous. 17 December 1903. On that Thursday the Wright brothers, Orville then Wilbur, made the first controlled powered flights in a heavier-than-air machine. In all, there were four flights that day, two for each brother. Five people watched history being made. Reports reached the press. And then…nothing happened. Barely any newspapers covered the story and the news faded away. No one could believe a couple of bicycle makers from Dayton, Ohio, a place as far from the beating heart of things then as it is today, had done what other better known, better educated and better connected people had failed to do. But it was precisely the roots the Wright brothers had in Dayton that made possible their extraordinary achievements. Of these roots, none were more important than their parents.

The Wright family home in Dayton, Ohio.

Milton Wright, father to the clan, was minister then bishop of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ. He fostered in his sons a love of reading and free intellectual inquiry that stemmed from his own interest in debate; if the boys, growing up, were engaged in some important investigation he happily turned a blind eye on them skipping school to concentrate on whatever new device they were constructing. However, it was from their mother, Susan, that the boys inherited their engineering flair: she constructed her own household appliances and made toys for the boys. Susan had met Milton during her studies at the United Brethren college in Hartsville, where she was studying English literature. Thus Wilbur and Orville grew up in a household predicated upon a deep commitment to learning, unshakeable faith (which the brothers also transferred into confidence in their work) and adherence to principles.

Milton and Susan had other children too: twins who died in infancy, two other sons, older than the flying brothers who made lives of their own, and the youngest, Katharine, who would share house, conversation and duties for many years with her famous brothers.

Wilbur Wright, born 16 April 1867, was the elder. In photographs of the pair he is the intense, balding figure with penetrating eyes. Orville Wright, born four years later on 19 August 1871, looks generally more avuncular and wears the thick moustache typical of the era. Despite the difference in age, the pair were inseparable. But separation was in the offing as Wilbur neared graduation from high school. A brilliant student – his test scores were in the 90s for everything – and an outstanding athlete, Wilbur was destined to fly high, educationally speaking: he was set for Yale.

Then, it happened, and everything changed. During an ice hockey match, a hockey stick smashed into Wilbur’s face, knocking out most of his upper front teeth. Wilbur suffered months of pain, followed by bouts of depression and withdrawal. Yale was out of the question. What’s more, their mother, Katharine, was ill with tuberculosis. Wilbur became her carer and, having retreated to the confines of the house, he read and read and read.

Wilbur Wright working in their bicycle workshop in 1897.

For his part, Orville had become fascinated with printing and, while still at school, built his own printing press using a tombstone, a spring from a horse buggy and scrap metal. Milton Wright credited the care Wilbur took of his mother for extending her life far beyond what was thought possible with tuberculosis, but in 1889 Susan Wright died. Wilbur, slowly emerging from his isolation, joined Orville in his printing business. In response to the national bicycle craze, in December 1892 the brothers started repairing bicycles and by 1896 they were building them too. They were assembling the skills they would need for the task that increasingly preoccupied them: flight.

One of the gliders the brothers built to test the principles of flight.

The boys first memory of flight was when their father brought home a toy helicopter, a contraption of wood and rubber bands, that they flew until it broke. But it was the news of the death, in August 1896, of Otto Lilienthal, the pioneer of glider flight, that resparked their interest in flight. In response, Wilbur did what he always did first: he read. Everything. When Orville recovered from a bout of typhoid, he joined his brother in scouring the libraries of Dayton. When these were exhausted, they wrote to the Smithsonian Institution asking for further reading – at the time, the Smithsonian was itself sponsoring expensive research into powered flight.

Wilbur Wright in one of their gliders as it lands leaving skid marks in the sand.

The Wright brothers were by no means the only people investigating flight: there were many inventors and teams working on how to fly. But what would set the brothers apart was the methodical way they broke down the problem and, in doing so, identified the key difficulty before flight could be achieved. The Wright brothers reasoned that there were three requirements for successful flight: a means of generating lift, some way of propelling the craft through the air and a system to direct and control the craft. All the other researchers were looking mainly at the first and second parts of the problem. The Wright brothers realised that it was the third part, the control system, that was least understood and most critical. After all, Otto Lilienthal, with his work on gliders, had demonstrated how wings could produce lift, and the burgeoning automobile industry was developing new, lighter and more powerful engines all the time. The real difficulty was control. This was where the brothers’ experience as cyclists was crucial. A cyclist, turning a corner, leans into the corner. They realised that the most effective way to turn a plane was for it to do the same, that it should bank in the direction it was turning (other researchers envisaged a system like a car, where the vehicle remains level while changing direction).

The first powered flight, piloted by Orville Wright.

Starting with self-made gliders, the Wrights tested out their ideas for controlling a craft in flight, developing the system of three-axis control – roll (lateral motion), pitch (up and down) and yaw (side to side) – that underlies aircraft control systems to this day. Through three years testing at Kitty Hawk on the Atlantic Coast of America – a site chosen for its isolation, helpful winds and soft sand to cushion hard landings – the Wrights brought their craft towards the ideal of powered flight. In December 1903, they were ready. The first attempt, on 14 December, damaged the plane. But at 10:35 on 17 December 1903, Orville Wright took off, flying 120 feet (36m) and staying in the air for 12 seconds. Wilbur had the second go, going further, then Orville outdid him only for Wilbur’s final flight (852 feet in 59 seconds) to eclipse all three previous efforts. They had done it.

Orville flying the Wright Type A Airplane at Ft. Myer, Va. on Sept. 9, 1908

The press completely missed the story. The Dayton newspaper said the flights were so short the news wasn’t worth printing. Never men to court publicity, the Wrights weren’t too bothered. Besides, they wanted to perfect their airplane and they spent the next couple of years doing so. European aviators were sceptical of the rumours they were hearing about the Wright’s plane. All that would change in 1908, when Wilbur Wright began making public demonstration flights in France. All that they had heard about the Wright’s flyer was true – and more. Meanwhile, in America, Orville was demonstrating their plane to the US Army. The brothers, having funded their research out of their own pockets, needed to make money of their momentous invention.

In Europe, the control and distances over which Wilbur piloted his plane caused a sensation.

The demonstration flights put an end to all doubts. The Wrights took off, flew circles and figure-8s, and landed, all while in total control of their planes. The two brothers from Dayton, Ohio, had done it. They had realised mankind’s second oldest dream. We could fly.

The First Man on the Moon

They were 6,000 feet (1,800m) above the Moon’s surface when the alarms started going off. The Lunar Module Eagle was descending far to the west of its designated landing site. Then, looking out of the window, Flight Commander Neil Armstrong saw that the Eagle’s computer system was aiming to land them on the steep slope of a crater made jagged with boulders. The mission to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth, always a tall order, was beginning to look more and more like it was going to fail.

But that was when Armstrong took control of the Lunar Module. Over his career as a fighter pilot, test pilot and astronaut, Armstrong had been shot down, had the engine of his plane explode and ejected from a Lunar Module simulator seconds before it crashed. He’d survived all these close escapes with nothing more than a bitten tongue and a reputation for never panicking under pressure. Now, Armstrong did what he always did: he stayed calm and played the situation as he saw it. In control of the lander, Armstrong and his co-pilot, Buzz Aldrin, scanned the lunar surface for somewhere safe to land, while the Eagle hovered 500 feet over the lunar surface, riding its rockets. Armstrong moved the craft sideways, searching for somewhere clear to land. They’d been hovering now for 90 seconds. Back on Earth, the mission controllers, watching the fuel supply gauges, were getting worried. Seriously worried. The Eagle had less than a minute of fuel left.

Then they saw it: an area clear enough to land. The Lunar Module descended. 400 feet. 300. 200. 100. 50. 20. Then, one of the probes that dangled down below the landing pads of the Lunar Module touched not earth but Moon. Seeing the warning light on the control panel, Aldrin said, “Contact light.”

“Shutdown,” said Armstrong, cutting the rockets. “OK. Engine stop,” said Aldrin.

The Eagle settled down upon the surface of the Moon, its landing soft under the gentle gravity, only one sixth that of Earth.

Armstrong and Aldrin looked through the windows and saw the dust blown up by their rockets spreading away from them. Outside was the Moon.

Armstrong got on the radio. “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” It was 20:17 UTC on 20 July 1969. On 17 December 1903, the Wright brothers had made the first powered flight, travelling 120 feet during that first flight. Now, 65 years later, two men had travelled 240,000 miles through space and were about to set foot on the Moon.

Growing up in Ohio in the 1930s, Armstrong (born 5 August 1930) certainly didn’t expect to find himself looking over the colour leached surface of the Moon a few weeks shy of his 40th birthday. But from his earliest childhood, Armstrong had been fascinated by flight. His father took him to an air show when he was two and for his first flight when he was five. Living in Wapakoneta, Ohio (population just over 5,000), the young Armstrong took a job with a local chemist so that he could pay for flying lessons. Already proficient as a flyer, Armstrong received his official flying license on his 16th birthday, meaning that he could fly before he could drive.

Having graduated from high school, Armstrong went to Purdue University where he studied aeronautical engineering as a naval air cadet. Two years later, on 26 January 1949, Armstrong was called up into the Navy and, after flight training, served as a pilot in the Korean War, flying 78 combat missions in Gruman F9F Panthers from the aircraft carrier USS Essex. On one low-level bombing mission, having been hit by anti-aircraft fire and struggling to regain control, the wing of Armstrong’s jet hit a cable – he was only 20 feet off the ground at the time – cutting six feet off the end of the plane’s right wing. Armstrong managed to nurse his plane back into friendly airspace and then ejected. Armstrong’s combat tour lasted from August 1951 to May 1952; 27 of Armstrong’s fellow pilots on the Essex were killed during these missions.

His war over, Armstrong returned to Purdue to finish his studies, receiving a BSc in aeronautical engineering in January 1955. With skills in engineering to match those in flying, Armstrong was accepted when he applied to become a test pilot with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) just before it was renamed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

As a test pilot, Armstrong flew many of the X planes, the jet- and rocket-powered craft that were pushing airplane technology further, higher and faster. Some of these planes had to be launched from the air and it was while carrying an X plane up to its launch altitude aboard a B-29 Superfortress that Armstrong had another fly past with disaster: one of the plane’s engines exploded, knocking two others out of action, and cutting the co-pilot’s control cables. Armstrong, with one engine working, managed to glide the B-29 back down to a safe landing.

Apart from his many other test flights, Armstrong flew the X-15 rocket plane seven times, touching space and reaching speeds of 4,000mph. He was, in all but name, an astronaut. That title would follow when, in September 1962, Armstrong was selected as one of the second group of astronauts for the NASA space programme. As part of the space programme, Armstrong took part in testing and development, areas where his combination of engineering and flight skills were particularly valuable. On 16 March 1966, Armstrong sat, with Dave Scott, atop the Gemini 8 rocket as it quivered under the 430,000 pound thrust of its engine before firing up, up, up into space. The huge engine generated 6G of thrust but at the end of it, Armstrong and Scott were in orbit. There, they made the first docking in space between their command module and an unmanned target vehicle before a safe re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.

All was set. On 16 July 1969, Apollo 11 with Armstrong, Aldrin and Michael Collins aboard blasted off from Kennedy Space Centre. On 19 July, the mission reached the Moon, swinging into orbit. A day later, Armstrong and Aldrin entered the Lunar Module, leaving Collins in the Command Module to orbit the Moon alone, and began their descent.

Safely down, NASA’s schedule called for the two astronauts to take a five-hour sleep before leaving the lander as they’d been awake for a long time. Not entirely surprisingly, Armstrong and Aldrin found going to sleep – they were on the Moon! – impossible, and asked for permission to bring forward their EVA (extravehicular activity). Permission granted, the astronauts suited up and depressurised the Eagle. At 02:39 Armstrong opened the hatch and at 02:51 began to climb down the ladder on the outside of the lander. There were nine rungs on the ladder. At 02:56 UTC on 21 July 1969, Armstrong stepped off the footpad and stepped on to the Moon.

“That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Twenty minutes later, Aldrin joined Armstrong. The two astronauts spent 2 hours, 31 minutes walking on the Moon, collecting samples and setting up experiments. The Earth hung, blue and white, in the black sky. Then they returned to the Lunar Module and settled down to rest. At 17:54 UTC, they ignited the rocket in the Eagle’s ascent stage and took off. Armstrong and Aldrin had been on the Moon for less than a day.

After returning to Earth, Neil Armstrong gave up space flight and left NASA in 1971, taking up a post in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Cincinnati. He lived a quiet life, generally shunning publicity, and flying gliders from his farm near Lebanon, Ohio. On 25 August 2012, Neil Armstrong died from complications following heart surgery. He was 82.

Between 21 July 1969 and 19 December 1972, twelve men walked on the Moon. No one has done so since.

The Space Race

John Glen, the first American to reach earth orbit, aboard his Mercury rocket in 1962.

On 4 October 1957, the Soviet Union stunned the world, and in particular the United States, by launching Sputnik 1 into orbit. Then, on 12 April 1961, the Soviet Union sent Yuri Gagarin into space and brought him safely back to earth. The space race had begun and the Soviet Union had a clear lead.

In a time when the world was locked into a confrontation between the communist Soviet bloc and the West, the propaganda advantage in leading the race into space was immense.

In response, on 25 May 1961 President John F. Kennedy asked Congress to commit the nation to, “before this decade is out, […] landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth”. Following Kennedy’s assassination, this pledge became sacrosanct.

To catch up with the Soviet lead, the Americans planned a series of manned spacecraft, beginning with the Mercury rockets crewed by a single astronaut, going on to the two-man Gemini missions that pioneered many of the technologies and techniques necessary for a flight to the Moon, and culminating with the three-man Apollo programme designed to take men to the Moon.

Despite the Apollo 1 disaster, when three astronauts were killed in the Command Module during testing on the launch pad when a fire broke out, by the late 1960s the American space programme had overtaken the Soviets. Now all that remained was to fulfil Kennedy’s pledge.

A Leftie in a Right-Handed World

Jimi Hendrix playing his upside down, turned round guitar.

Jimi Hendrix, famously, played guitar left handed – that is he fretted notes with his right hand and strummed the strings with his left hand. But left-handed guitars were few and expensive, so Hendrix took an ordinary right-handed Fender Stratocaster, flipped it upside down, so that the tuning pegs were on the bottom, and restrung it.

Doing this changed how the guitar sounded. A Fender Stratocaster has three pickups (electric microphones that produce the signal fed to the guitar’s amplifier), with the rear pickup set at an angle to the strings. Reversing the guitar meant that this pickup took its signal from the higher strings further up the fretboard, producing a sweeter tone. By reversing the guitar, Hendrix also changed the relative distance of each string from its pickup, thereby altering the mix of sound in the guitar’s signal to the amp.

Another effect of reversing the stringing on his guitar was the highest strings, which on a normal Stratocaster are the longest, became the shortest on the Stratocasters Hendrix played. A shorter string requires less tension to tune it, making the string easier to bend and thus easier to play. This change also altered the amount of string between the nut at the end of the fretboard and the tuning peg. Although the nut prevents this length of string actually playing, it produces overtones when the string is plucked. Changing the length of these parts of the strings also contributed to the unique Hendrix sound.

Book review: The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

It’s not easy to write a great adventure story. It’s not like writing a good adventure story. That’s not so difficult – I’ve written a couple myself. But a great adventure story, that’s a different matter. It’s different because that which separates a great story from a good story has nothing to do with the formal elements of storytelling: character, plot, three-act structures, all the things they teach you in writing classes. Do these, and you’ll write a good adventure story – or any other type of story.

No, what separates the great from the good is something that stands outside the formal norms of storywriting. It’s lightning in the words. It’s the letter shock and the story explosion. It’s the way that, sometimes, everything clicks, rising to a level above the good. There’s no way of climbing to that level from simple effort because, in essence, it’s a gift: a gift from the words themselves and, yes, the muse.

Sometimes the muse chooses to place her mark upon writers who deserve it, men and women who have honed their words until they can wield them like a surgeon, such as Robert Louis Stevenson (she flung her .iightning at him at least thrice). But sometimes she strikes the literary jobber, writers who churn out words for a living and somehow find themselves typing lightning. Bram Stoker was one, with Dracula, and Anthony Hope was another with The Prisoner of Zenda. It’s a typical lightning book: bold, bright, vivid as the thunder storm. Read it, and ride the lightning.

All Around the Island: Mersea

A walk can be a dangerous thing. As Bilbo Baggins observed, paths flow into roads that can lead anywhere, to Rivendell and to Mordor. But they can also lead to anywhen.

I’ve always been fascinated by how the geography of Britain has changed, with generations of farmers nibbling at the sea, while the sea gnaws the coast. Mersea, a tidal island in the Colne Estuary, demonstrates this vividly. And who wouldn’t want to walk around an island?

To avoid the July heat, I crossed The Strood, the causeway linking Mersea to the mainland, at dawn. Now tarmac, and regularly inundated at high spring tides, The Strood is itself a link to the past, for the causeway was first laid around 700 AD, when an Anglo-Saxon magnate ordered three to five thousand oak pilings to be sunk into the underlying clay. Oak pilings don’t talk, and later Viking invaders destroyed pretty well all written records in East Anglia and Essex, but one candidate as builder was the monk-king, Sæbbi of Essex, who abdicated to devote himself to prayer.

The rising sun drew a morning mist from the ground and sea. The tide was coming in, and in the dawn silence I heard it slow swirl through the channels of the mud flats. Continuing across the island to West Mersea, I set off clockwise around the island. Walking away from the harbour, seaweed shaggy pilings rulered out into the slowly filling channel. When, many hours later, I reached the causeway again the lunarscape of mud flats had been replaced by flat sheets of grey water.

From here, a short detour inland made for a long walk into the past. At the top of the rise overlooking the causeway is a barrow dating to the start of the second century AD. Now topped with an oak tree, it would once have been the most visible feature of the landscape for people crossing the causeway. When the mound was excavated early in the twentieth century, archaeologists found, at the heart of the barrow, a lead box containing cremated bones, creating a conundrum under the hill. For the Romans did not raise barrows, and the Britons did not cremate the dead. But here were both.

Returning to island circumnavigation, I followed the Pyefleet Channel that runs between the island and the mainland. The sun had burned off the morning mist and the water sparkled in the early light. Saxon invaders, in their shallow-drafted boats, used these channels as highways into the country’s heart. Not far up the coast, at Sutton Hoo, an Anglo-Saxon king was buried in one of these boats, accompanied into the next life by some of the most magnificent jewellery and armour ever made. It was not hard to imagine the creak of oarlocks and the hiss of oars as the dragon-prowed boats moved stealthily upstream. Indeed, the settlers and invaders of 1,500 years ago were accompanied by much the same soundtrack as I was: the harsh croak of seagulls, the piping whistles of curlews, and the hiss of water and wind. For a few miles I walked in a soundscape unaltered for a thousand years.

The north shore of Mersea Island is quiet. I saw a handful of people, mostly on boats, but many swifts, the birds of eternal summer, jinking over the salt marshes, and, along a thistle-lined stretch of path, a cortege of butterflies accompanied me on my way.

Reaching the tip of the island, the North Sea opened out, unusually blue and tranquil. To the south, the edge of the island was marked by shallow orange cliffs. The sea is hard gnawing the land here. Tree roots jut out into empty space, clawing against the inevitable, before they finally tumble down upon the beach. The cliffs were laid down 300,000 years ago, when elephants, rhinos and bear roamed the area, and fossil hunters still turn up remains.

The sun was up and I was thirsty and hungry. An advantage of this walk was ending it at one of the excellent seafood shacks in West Mersea, eating the wildlife – oysters, cockles, shellfish – that had, unseen, underwater, accompanied me around the island. As walks go, making my way around Mersea had proved somewhat less difficult than Bilbo had warned but it had revealed unsuspected depths of time as well as providing views over great expanses of sea space.

Book review: The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

Some science fiction ages, overtaken by advances in science and changes in society. Some doesn’t, and among the writers who stand up best to the grind of time is Alfred Bester. He only wrote three novels in the 1950s, the golden age of SF, but all three are classics of the genre. I read them first thirty or forty years ago, only a few decades after they were first written, and they then represented a dazzling vision of possible futures. Reading The Demolished Man again forty years after I first read, it’s still a dazzling vision of a possible future: a baroque, extravagant, Nietzchean future where the police can probe minds psychically to solve all crimes.

So in a world where the police can read your mind by trained psychics, how can anyone, even the world’s richest and most powerful man, commit murder and get away with it? That’s the crux of the novel, and Bester riffs through the ways of doing it with the skill of a master, but what is particularly striking is how he conveys direct mind to mind contact on the printed page, playing with text layout and syntax. It’s a brilliantly imaginative way of suggesting something none of us have ever experienced (or at least I haven’t!).

This is what science fiction was once capable of: a pyrotechnical mash up of ideas and writing styles. Read it and wonder why writers don’t do this any longer.

The Battle of Heavenfield AD 634

The combatants

Oswald (603/4 – 642), exiled prince of Northumbria

Forced into exile as a 12-year-old boy when his uncle, Edwin, killed his father, Æthelfrith, and took the kingdom of Northumbria, Oswald grew to manhood in the kingdom of Dál Riata. While there, Oswald and his exiled family, previously pagan, embraced Christianity with varying degrees of fervour, and Oswald himself gained a reputation for martial valour and Christian piety. When Uncle Edwin was killed by Cadwallon, King of Gwynedd, Oswald remained in Dál Riata, only launching his own effort to retake the throne after Cadwallon had killed two other pretenders, both relatives of Oswald. Victorious at the Battle of Heavenfield, Oswald brought monks from Iona to preach the new religion to the Northumbrians, in the process creating institutions that were able to survive Oswald’s own death in battle in 642. A cult rapidly developed around Oswald following his death, with the martyred king – he died in battle against the pagan king of the Mercians – becoming a popular saint in Britain and Germany.

Cadwallon ap Cadfan (d.634), King of Gwynedd

Cadwallon was the subject of vituperation in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the villain around whom the first half of the book is structured. In Bede’s account, he was a violent marauder, bent on exterminating the Northumbrian people. But for the Britons, Cadwallon was their last great champion, ‘the fierce affliction of his foes, a lion prosperous over the Saxons’. On the Isle of Anglesey, the breadbasket of the Kingdom of Gwynedd, the kings had their palace at Aberffraw. There, Cadwallon raised a memorial stone, visible today inset into the wall of the Church of St Cadwaladr. CATAMANUS REX SAPIENTISIMUS OPINATISIMUS OMNIUM REGUM. ‘King Catamanus, wisest, most renowned of kings.’ Catamanus is the Latin form of Cadfan, Cadwallon’s father. The brutal warleader of Bede’s account raised a Latin inscription praising the wisdom of his father. History, as written by different sides.

The Battle

It was a bleak place to die. The moors rose steeply from the east bank of the Devil’s Water, their flanks bare of cover. The river itself, that had provided the remnants of the retreating army with some cover at the start of the long rout, now boxed them in. Coming to another stream, Denis Brook, that fed the Devil’s Water the leader of the retreating men signalled those still left with him to turn and make a stand. The moors rose up to the south. There was no escape that way, not with their pursuers following so close behind. The only chance was to buy a little time, to bloody the hunters so that they had to stop and regroup, and then attempt to escape.

Cadwallon, King of Gwynedd, the most successful warlord in Britain, the killer of kings and the hope of his people, ranged his retainers beside him, anchoring the flank against the river. There were so few of them now that he could do nothing to protect the right wing of his shield wall. They waited. They did not have to wait long.

The man leading the pursuers had been given a nickname, Lamnguin, by the people with whom his mother had sought safety when he was still a boy. Lamnguin meant ‘white blade’. But it was not white now. The man’s name was Oswald.

With the Denis Brook at his back, Cadwallon prepared to make his stand. The moors, bare of trees in the 7th century as they are bare today, looked down with the detachment of geology. Humans many generations earlier, during the Neolithic, had stripped the hills of their tree cover, their stone axes proving as adept at deforestation as later tools of iron and steel.

The final battle was brief but brutal. At its end, Cadwallon and the men of his household lay dead, their bodies stripped of ornaments and armaments.

The Battle of Heavenfield was over. Oswald, Northumbrian ætheling in exile, had returned to reclaim his crown. Ætheling is an Old English word meaning a man who is throne worthy. Among the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that had been established in the east and central regions of Britain there was no settled system for the transmission of power – how could there be, when power was something that was taken, and kept, with the sword.

The Background to the Battle

The cross at Heavenfield

To be a king of one of these kingdoms did normally require some connection to the ruling family but just as important for the succession was the ability of a claimant to the throne to gain the support of the leading men of the kingdom. If all else failed, power could simply be grabbed, taken in battle and then cemented by further warfare. If this makes early-medieval Britain sound like a chaotic place of incessant warfare, that is pretty much what it was like. This was a time when a warband of 50 men might win a kingdom. A later law code, promulgated by King Ine of Wessex in 694, defines an army (here) as a group of 35 or more men.

St Oswald’s Church, Heavenfield

So it is likely that, as Bede says in his account of the Battle of Heavenfield, Oswald was leading a small band of men when he confronted Cadwallon. The name of the battle is misleading, for it commemorates the place where Oswald camped on the eve of the battle. There is a church at Heavenfield today, a largely Victorian rebuilding of an earlier Norman church that was itself built over an early Medieval building. The church is named, naturally, St Oswald, for the warrior king was acclaimed a saint following his death in 642. Of course, the church postdates Oswald’s camp. Bede informs us that Oswald camped on the northern side of Hadrian’s Wall and that monks from Hexham had later raised a church on the site.

The maximum extent of the kingdom of Dál Riata

Oswald’s small warband was relying on the tactics of surprise and assault that Oswald had learned during his years spent with the kings of Dál Riata. In that kingdom, which stretched from Northern Island to Argyll, the obligations of the three clans of the kingdom were assessed in the numbers of boats and warriors each clan had to provide to the king when called to the kingdom’s defence. The Dál Riatans pursued the tactics of surprise and sea-borne assault that would serve the Vikings so well three centuries later – and Oswald had learned these tactics during his formative years, when he had earned his nickname fighting with the king’s warband.

Stanegate in Corbridge

While Oswald could not arrive by sea, his aim was to attack Cadwallon before news of his presence could reach the King of Gwynedd. Oswald and his men had outridden rumour, most likely galloping along the Stanegate, the west-east Roman military road that ran just south of the Wall and predated it. Near St Oswald’s Church, that commemorates Hefenfelth, the ‘heavenly field’ where Oswald and his men camped, archaeologists discovered the remains of what is prosaically called Turret 25B, one of the milecastles of Hadrian’s Wall. Nothing remains above ground, but it would have made a good night camp for Oswald and his men, providing shelter and, since it lay on the declining slope of a ridge, cover from eyes looking from the direction of Cadwallon’s camp.

St Columba preaching to the Picts

It must have been a tense night. During the course of it, according to the account written by Adomnán, abbot of Iona from 679 to 704, Oswald had a dream vision of St Columba, the founder of the monastery on Iona and the man whose spiritual legacy lay over the Irish Sea and its surrounding lands. In the vision, the saint promised Oswald victory on the morrow. For Oswald, who had gone into exile as the pagan son of pagan Anglians, had become enchanted by the new faith of the Holy Isle during his growing up, and embraced it wholeheartedly. In Bede’s account Oswald also raised a cross before his warband, holding it in place while his men made it firm, then kneeling with his men to ask God’s blessing for their cause.

Iona Abbey in the 19th century

This was an age when men judged heaven’s favour by the most fundamental of metrics: those who won and those who died in battle. The monks of Iona, from whom Oswald had received the new faith, had seen in their young protégé a man who could do something no one else had been able to do: bring the faith to his pagan brethren. Yes, Augustine, the Italian emissary of Pope Gregory the Great, had landed in Kent in 597, but after its initial success the Augustinian mission had stalled. The sponsorship it had enjoyed through the patronage of Æthelberht, King of Kent, the most powerful king among the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Britain, had died with Æthelberht.

There had been northern success when Edwin, King of Northumbria, Oswald’s uncle and the man who had killed Oswald’s father, converted to Christianity. But then Edwin fell in battle to Cadwallon the nascent Christian kingdom Edwin was trying to set up collapsed too. This was very much the pattern of early-medieval Britain. A warlord would rise, winning power and prestige through success in battle, and thereby attracting glory hungry young men to his warband. The warlord would expand his power, forcing other kings to pay him tribute, with regular skirmish wars to exact further treasure, until a battle too far ended in his utter defeat and death, with the consequent dissolution of whatever rudimentary kingdom the king had built up. Edwin’s kingdom dissolved on his death.

But after defeating Edwin, Cadwallon, unusually, did not return to Gwynedd. Instead he remained far from home in Northumbria, killing two further claimants to the Northumbrian throne, Edwin’s cousin Osric and Oswald’s half brother, Eanfrith.

Bede’s portrays Cadwallon as a rapacious predator, bent on destroying the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria and its people. His portrait is one-sided: for the Britons, the native people of Britain, Cadwallon was a champion, their ‘furious stag’ who broke from the mountain strongholds to which they had withdrawn to reclaim their inheritance. As such, Cadwallon’s long stay in Northumbria, which had become the pre-eminent Anglo-Saxon kingdom under the rule of King Edwin, makes some sense. Cadwallon, like most of the Britons, was a Christian, a man who was still sufficiently versed in Romanitas to have a Latin epitaph carved on his father’s gravestone. But the monks of Iona, the most important spiritual centre in the Irish Sea, decided to favour their own man, Oswald, in the struggle for the throne of Northumbria. The descendants of Cadwallon, the Welsh, included in the Mabinogion their lament for their fallen champion and a veiled reference to the treachery of Iona.

From the plotting of strangers and iniquitous
Monks, as the water flows from the fountain,
Sad and heavy will be the day for Cadwallon.

Cadwallon’s army had been on campaign for a more than a year. The initial warband, the warband that had defeated and killed kings and made Cadwallon the most successful warlord in Britain, had bloated and swelled with hangers on and the loot of many victories. Camping somewhere near Corbridge, at the junction of Dere Street and Stanegate, Cadwallon could guard the bridge over the River Tyne. But Oswald had advanced faster than the news of his landing in Britain could reach Cadwallon. Using the tactics of surprise and aggression learned from his time in Dál Riata, Oswald attacked at dawn. With his camp thrown into confusion and panic, Cadwallon attempted a fighting withdrawal with what men he could summon to his call.

The battle turned into a series of strung out skirmishes. Rather than retreating south down Dere Street, Cadwallon fell back along the Devil’s Water. The river has its source in the moors south of Corbridge, today part of the North Pennines AONB. Its not an obvious line of retreat. Most likely Cadwallon was forced that way. His end came, as Bede reports, by the Denisesburn, the Brook of Denis. While Denis Brook might have been well known in Bede’s time, its name was forgotten in later years, and with it the location of the battle’s denouement. It was only the discovery, in the 19th century, of a 13th century charter that made over land to Thomas of Whittington between Denisesburn and Divelis that the location became known again, for the Divelis is another name for the Devil’s Water. There Cadwallon died and Oswald claimed the throne of Northumbria.

King now, by the grace of battle, Oswald gave to the monks of Iona another island, Lindisfarne, within sight of his ancestral stronghold on Bamburgh and with Aidan, abbot and bishop of Iona, he set about doing something that no other king of early-medieval Britain had succeeded in doing: making a kingdom that could survive his death. Together, king and abbot embarked on that most delicate and difficult of tasks: the making of a civilisation.

Book review: Dracula by Bram Stoker

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Along with Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Dracula suffers, as a story, from having become proverbial. Everyone has heard of Dracula. Everyone knows that he’s a vampire, just as everyone reading Stevenson’s book knows Dr Jekyll’s secret all along. It’s impossible for us to unknow these aspects of the story but, when rereading both books over the last year, I tried to at least imagine what it would have been like for the first readers who didn’t know what was going to happen. Doing that helped me to realise what incredible feats of storytelling both books were. Admittedly, Robert Louis Stevenson is a better writer than Bram Stoker, but Stoker’s use of letters, diaries, even early audio recordings, is quite brilliant, pulling the reader into the various points of view and locking us there for the duration of each chapter.

While the book suffers a little from the usual Victorian tendency to verbosity (a failing Stevenson does not share), the narrative drive is unrelenting and the story drills down into all sorts of nightmares and archetypes: sometimes, a writer can be a vehicle for a story. Sometimes, it can assume a life and purpose of its own, pushing the writer beyond anything he would normally be capable of. That was the case with Dracula.

Although the entry of Dracula into popular culture means that we can never be surprised by the book in the same its first readers were, nevertheless his embrace by the wider culture is an unmistakeable sign of the power of the story that Stoker found himself writing.

Book review: Fight to the Finish by Allan Mallinson

Fight to the Finish by Allan Mallinson

The subtitle states that this is a history of the First World War month by month and that’s exactly what Mallinson does. The book derives from a monthly series of features Mallinson wrote for The Spectator magazine, starting on the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, that followed the war through each month of the following four years.

This strictly calendrical approach is mainly a strength, almost allowing one to follow how the war would have unfolded to people at the time but with better access to what was going on, but on the odd occasion it forces him to squeeze a huge amount of events into a single chapter. Overall, though, it’s a structure that works very well. In particular, it allows Mallinson to show how this was truly a World War, and not one limited to the trench warfare of the Western front. Using this focus, he expands the view to take in the Eastern Front, the carnage of the mountain war between Italy and Austria/Hungary, the war in the Middle East and the Dardanelles – everywhere.

It’s also useful as a partial corrective to the old saw of lions led by donkeys. The generals of the First World War were not as clueless as portrayed in Blackadder although, in a telling insight, Mallinson gets to the crux of their key failure in understanding the war on the Western Front: it was siege warfare, with the walls of the castle stretching from the mountains to the sea. Some of the commanders realised this but it took a long time for their understanding to penetrate through to the higher ranks. But, once said, it becomes so obvious!

Highly recommended.