The Last Solderslinger

For many years, I worked repairing TVs and videos, driving around in my white van. It was a family business, and it had kept us all gainfully employed for twenty years or so. But sometime in the late 1990s we realised that our days wielding the soldering iron and the Avometer were numbered. Most of the other repairmen, men who had started when you could warm a house from the heat generated by the thermionic valves in the back of a television, also lay down their irons around this time. I wrote this piece for us all.

Cyril Dennis retires after 53 years repairing TVs.

The last solderslinger drove out of town. It was showdown time. The Cyber Cowboy was going to pay. Twenty one years ago the last solderslinger had rolled into the city, sniffed the petrol in the air, and settled down to raising kids. Now the young whippersnappers thought they could steal stock from right under his nose. Well, today they were going to see the old timer still had a few tricks left in his toolbox.

The solderslinger pulled up in his Transit outside the new ‘light industrial unit’. Things sure had changed since he started riding the range twenty one years ago.

Striding towards his enemy’s stronghold, he remembered his first van: £4141 in 1980. Then only this year he had gotten a brand new transit from Dan Dan the Van Man for £11926.

But in that time his stock, ah, his stock. The first time, alone and nervous, he had gone out to see a sick TV was in 1980. There were three TV channels and BBC 1 played the national anthem shortly after midnight and went to bed like decent folk. And the TV, a Sony KV2204, complete with Trinitron tube and plastic wood appearance fascia, that fine piece of livestock had cost £530. Now a Sony KV21X5 went for £260.

Then his stock was 12.8% the cost of his nag. Now it was 2.2%. If he wanted to keep his ranch he was going to have to take out the Cyber Cowboy.

The last solderslinger burst through the doors, solder gun in one hand, Avometer in the other.

‘Come on then, you varmints, eat solder!’

The Cyber Cowboy looked up, startled. On the bench before him, innards indecently displayed to the watching world, lay a Sony KV28-DX30 hissing in pain from the torture instruments plunged deep inside its gizzards.

‘What are you no good son of a bitch doing to that there TV?’ demanded the last solderslinger, waving his gun menacingly.

‘Er, repairing it?’ said the Cyber Cowboy, some little whippersnapper who looked like he’d never even gotten a decent electric shock when disconnecting the EHT lead.

‘Sure,’ said the last solderslinger. ‘How?

‘Well, I just hook it up to the PC and it runs a set of diagnostics and then I do what it tells me to do,’ said the Cyber Cowboy.

‘Pah,’ said the last solderslinger. ‘Call that repair? Bet that gear costs thousands. Give it here and I’ll sort it with my Avometer in an hour flat.’

‘What’s an Avometer?’ asked the Cyber Cowboy.


A little while later the solderslinger sat in his van. He had lost. They had taken away his solder gun and Avometer and given him an application form for a training course in basic IT skills for the over-fifties.

He opened his flask and drank, but the milk tasted sour. No longer the last solderslinger, just the millionth mousketeer.

He got out of the van, went to the back and scratched a couple of words in the dirt, then got in and drove away.

‘For sale.’

A soldering iron.

An Avometer.

Adventures in Bookland: First Light by Geoffrey Wellum


This won’t be so much a review as an injunction: read this book. That’s right, stop reading this review right now and go and get hold of First Light however you can: buy it, borrow it, steal it if necessary (any writer in his deepest heart wants readers more than anything else, so if you can’t afford to buy his work, he’ll forgive someone who steals to read).

Right, got it? What, you mean you haven’t bought it yet? Well, let me tell you why you should. Firstly, this book has moved, in a single reading, into my top five favourite books of all time. The achievement is all the greater in that the other occupiers of that list were books I read when I was much younger, unmarked, and could receive deeper and more lasting impressions from the books I read. But First Light has broken through the dull accretions, and the dullening, of age. So, if you would be young again, read First Light.

How has it managed to do this? Because it combines two things in a quite extraordinary manner. Firstly, it is the memoir of a boy growing into manhood while flying Spitfires during the Battle of Britain. As such, it is thrilling, humbling and intense in a way that very little else could be. (As an aside, the great Australian cricketer, Keith Miller, also flew fighter planes during the Second World War. When interviewed many years later by Michael Parkinson, Parkinson asked him about how the pressure of playing top-level cricket, to which Miller gave the immortal, and precise, answer: ‘Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse, playing cricket is not.’)

As a straight memoir, First Light would be a good book for the almost impressionist way it brings to life the stress and tension of being a front line fighter pilot during the Second World War. But there are many other memoirs of the air war. Where First Light becomes something quite exceptional is that, unlike most of the other memoirs, it was written many years after the events it describes, when Wellum, so young during the Battle of Britain that he was nicknamed ‘Boy’ by the other members of his squadron, had become an old man. What’s more, he was an old man whose marriage had broken down and who had withdrawn from his old life.

First Light is the record of an old man looking back on his life and asking the question of whether that life was worthwhile. It is the record of humanity staring into the great unknown that awaits and asking, ‘Did I live in vain?’ There is thus, behind the tale of the young man growing up, the almost unbearable poignancy of an old man assessing his years and weighing them in the scales. This is what makes First Light so exceptional: youth recalled in age, and the great question of whether, when Geoffrey Wellum meets his maker, he will have anything to place in the scales to weigh his life as having been well lived.

Although there is an aching sense that Wellum himself is unsure of the answer, to the reader there is no doubt: that we live to read what you have written is testament to your life and its worth.

Thank you, Mr Wellum, for your life and for your book.

Adventures in Bookland: The Norman Conquest by Marc Morris


Hands down, the best popular account of what it says in the title on the bookshelves today. What makes this so good is Morris’s brilliant balancing of a consideration of the sources with the narrative imperatives of telling the story of what actually happened. That he does this so masterfully is shown by the fact that, until it was over and I was thinking back over it for the purposes of writing a review, I didn’t even realise just how he’d pulled off the hardest trick of writing history: embedding a consideration of the sources in the narrative without stopping the narrative dead in its tracks. Well done, Marc Morris!


Adventures in Bookland: Recce by Koos Stadler


A profound paradox lies at the heart of this book, a paradox not even hinted at in its subtitle (“Small team missions behind enemy lines”), although it is mentioned, without comment, in the book’s blurb. For while it is an intriguing and insightful examination of the specialised and deadly world of special forces’ operations, what is skated over is who these special forces were and what they were fighting against.

The special forces were part of the South African army and they were fighting the guerillas of SWAPO, the organisation struggling to free South West Africa (now Namibia) from the racist control of the apartheid regime in Pretoria. And the author of Recce, Koos Stadler, was one of the men fighting to preserve that regime.

For some, that in itself might disqualify the book from reading lists, but that would be to miss another of the paradoxes at the book’s heart: while the author is fighting to defend the indefensible, reading Recce brings the reader to the slow realisation that good men can be committed to fighting for what is wrong. For Stadler is undoubtedly a good man and a good soldier, serving his country, his people and his God as best he knows how. Nor is he, the servant of a racist regime, in any way racist himself: how could he be, when in the long border war he served alongside so many black African soldiers, creating the sorts of bonds of mutual trust and friendship that staring into the face of death together forge between men.

And this reveals the book’s final paradox: how many black Africans fought alongside the South African army against the guerillas of SWAPO. So the book’s final lesson is that, even in the struggle against apartheid, things are never just black and white.

Adventures in Bookland: The Path to War by Michael Neiberg


At the dawn of the 20th century, the United States was a power hiding behind oceans. In the first decades of the 21st century, it is the world’s only hyperpower, able to project its military and cultural influence to every corner of the world. This fascinating book – at least, it’s fascinating for those with an interest in the political and sociological history of America – tells how America made the decisive turn towards engagement with the outside world.

It may be hard to realise now, but through most of its history, isolationism has been the strongest strand to America’s foreign policy. Its founders and first generations of immigrants crossed the sea to escape the wars and persecutions – political and religious – of the Old World. Having found a home in the New World, they had no wish to engage in the wars of their old homes. So when the First World War broke out, America remained neutral. Not only did this keep it out of the war, neutrality brought huge profits in its wake, as American goods and products found ready markets among all the combatants.

But such blood profits sat uneasily on American consciences, bought as they were in the immolation of a continent that many Americans still thought of as home. For none was this problem more acute than for German-Americans. Where did their loyalty lie? At first, they pushed for continued American neutrality. But as the war continued and incidents such as the sinking of the Lusitania increased anti-German feeling, such a position became increasingly untenable. War was coming. And German-Americans, in common with Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans and the other national groups, came to the one, common conclusion: they were Americans before they were anything else. Thus, the First World War killed off the 19th-century American experiment in multiculturalism (played out in a multitude of national-language newspapers and societies) and ushered in a new consciousness of what it was to be American.

Neiberg tells the story of this profound change through an encyclopaedic knowledge of the time, ranging from popular songs, through speeches and newspaper articles, to the letters of people ranging from Theodore Roosevelt to ordinary mothers contemplating the possibility of their sons being called up. It’s a great piece of scholarship – but only bother with reading it if you’re interested in the subject.

Adventures in Bookland: King Cnut by WB Bartlett


Ask the man in the street how many times England has been successfully invaded and he’ll reply, “Twice: the Romans and the Normans.” Ask a historian, particularly one specialising in constitutional history, and he’ll add a third: William and Mary’s invasion in 1688.

They’re all wrong. There have been at least five successful invasions of England. These three, plus the slow-motion carving out of an England separate from Britain by the Anglo-Saxons and then, fifty years before the one date in English history everyone knows, the Vikings finally succeeded in what they’d been trying to do for the previous 150 years: grab the country.

This long-overdue book is about the Viking invasions that first crippled and then ended the reign of England’s worst-ever king, Æthelred, and the man who finally succeeded him, Cnut. In Denmark, his homeland, Cnut’s name is invariably followed by his appellation, ‘the Great’, but in England, where he spent most of his adult life and where he was buried, he is all but forgotten, his fame as a conqueror eclipsed by the man who followed him, fifty years later. Bartlett’s book seeks to redress that balance and it does a good job of demonstrating what a remarkable king Cnut was, holding together a sea-spanning empire encompassing Denmark, England, Norway and much of Sweden.

As a sea pirate with imperial pretensions, Cnut did all that he could to ensure the history makers of his time – the clerks of the Church – were on his side, as well as doing what he could in later life to atone for the judicious murders of his early life that had made his grasp of the crown more secure. The book is thorough in its exploration of the man and his time, although a little on the bloodless side. This is no fault of the author, but rather inherent in the limited contemporary sources – mainly chronicles and charters – which do not lend themselves to rounded character portraits. Later Norse sagas add colour but the careful historian, and Bartlett is careful, has to be cautious about adding these details to what is a sober assessment of England’s forgotten conqueror.

And the tide story? First related by Henry of Huntingdon in the 12th century (a century after Cnut’s death).


Adventures in Bookland: St Augustine’s First Footfall by Gerald Moody


This slim (87 page) book does exactly what it says in its subtitle: An Investigation into the Probable Location of the Landing Site of Augustine’s Mission in 597 AD. Of course, the really fascinating thing is why Augustine (the missionary sent by Pope Gregory the Great to bring the pagan and barbarian Angl0-Saxons into the fold of civilisation) should land right where, in centuries before and afterward, visitors and invaders ranging from the Emperor Claudius, through Hengist and Horsa, all manner of Vikings and, even would-be invaders such as Napoleon and Hitler, all made first footfall.

The answer lies in part in geography. Yes, Dover is closer to France, but it is exposed and has great towering cliffs standing over it: a particularly vulnerable place to make a landing. The great secret to landing where Augustine, and so many others, landed, is that the Isle of Thanet really was an island back then, a chalk hill cut off from the rest of Kent by the Wantsum Channel. In places, this channel was a mile wide, and up until the 15th century a ferry trip was still needed to get to Thanet. But the Wantsum silted up, joining Thanet to the mainland. However, while Thanet was an island, it provided a unique, and uniquely defensible, entry point to England.

In this book, Gerald Moody, deputy director of the Trust for Thanet Archaeology, employs the latest research into how Thanet’s coastline has changed to investigate just where Augustine and his team of Italian missionaries landed in 597 AD. According to our chronicler of the event, Bede, Augustine and crew were detained on Thanet while the king of Kent, Æthelberht, decided what to do with these strange visitors. Moody does an excellent job of examining the historical account through the lens of modern archaeology, and makes a convincing case for his siting of the landing and the location of Augustine’s stay on Thanet.

In short, an absorbing and detailed little book, well worth reading for anyone interested in the particulars (Augustine’s mission) or the general (England’s changing coastline).

The Sage for Our Age


Turns out that Lord Melbourne, Queen Victoria’s mentor, is the true sage of our time, when every expert proves wrong and wild hopes and wilder fears are realised:

“What all the wise men promised has not happened, and what all the damned fools said would happen has come to pass.”

Adventures in Bookland: Ecgfrith, King of the Northumbrians, High King of Britain by NJ Higham

517twmhyeqlProfessor NJ Higham is probably (no, definitely) the foremost academic expert of the history of the kingdom of Northumbria. (In one of those peculiar coincidences, he is Emeritus professor of History at the University of Manchester but, just to cause confusion, the University of Manchester has another eminent professor who is also called NJ Higham – and Nicholas is the Christian name for both of them. The other NJ Higham is the Richardson Professor of Applied Mathematics.)

So imagine my delight when, reading Professor Higham’s latest book, I found…me! Yes, I was referenced and footnoted, and not just once but multiple times. It turns out that the great man has read the book on the history and archaeology of Northumbria that I co-wrote with Paul Gething, the director of the Bamburgh Research Project, the ongoing archaeological investigation of the castle and its surroundings. Turning to the back of the book, not only is Northumbria: the Lost Kingdom in the bibliography, but so are Edwin: High King of Britain and Oswald: Return of the King!

All I can say is that I wish this book had come out before I began writing the Northumbrian Thrones. It is quite the most rigorous and thorough treatment of the kings of Northumbria’s ascent to dominance, and the perfect foil to Max Adams’ book The King in the North. Where Adams treatment is poetic and anthropological, pursuing the limited evidence by recourse to cultural parallels even if they are far removed (an approach that suggests much that is intriguing but one that establishes very little), Professor Higham’s book is much more restrained, not seeking to push the evidence beyond what we know but, by bringing a lifetime of scholarship to bear, Professor Higham extracts every last bit of inference from what we do know, creating the fullest possible picture of the kingdom of Northumbria in its heyday. Indeed, for the period of Northumbrian dominance, this book is now the definnitive work, overtaking Professor Higham’s own magisterial The Kingdom of Northumbria AD350-1100.

Oswiu: What Writers Think – no.5 in a short series

Matthew Harffy
Matthew Harffy

See this fellow? If you think he looks like he wouldn’t be out of place in the 7th century, you’d be right. Back when I was finishing off Edwin: High King of Britain and congratulating myself in having this extraordinary period in British history all to myself, I discovered that there was another writer working on a book set during the reign of King Edwin. After employing a few old English words, I set to stalking him online and discovered to my horror that, yes, he really was writing in my period and that, even worse, he was really good.

When Matthew found out about me – you can read how this happened in his interview with me here – there was much tentative circling, rather like two wary warriors, not quite sure of the other’s intention. But we soon realised that we would do better standing shoulder to shoulder than facing each other, a realisation bolstered by the fact that we could each admire the other’s work wholeheartedly while realising, with some relief, that we were doing quite different things with our takes on the 7th century.

Since Matthew writes about the same period I do, he clearly knows it backward. So I was delighted when he said he’d read an advance copy of Oswiu: King of Kings. I was even more pleased with what he said about it:

“In Oswiu: King of Kings, Edoardo Albert brings to vivid life the battle for the land and souls of the British people in the seventh century.  Albert tells an epic tale of kings and queens, omens and shieldwalls, where the future of a people was decided as much through the guile of its priests as the strength of its warlords. He deftly weaves the threads of a memorable cast of characters into the weft and warp of a vibrant tapestry of war, mystery and intrigue. Yet the true strength of Oswiu: King of Kings, is in the depiction of the effects of conflict on the men and women of the Dark Ages. As Albert reminds us there is much more to conquest than the ringing clash of swords.”

And if you don’t rush out and buy Oswiu now, I’ll get Matthew to send his hero, Beobrand round to have a word with you – and you really don’t want to get Beobrand annoyed!