Adventures with Words: Brazen Chariots by Major Robert Crisp

Brazen Chariots by Robert Crisp

Some men are bigger than their books. Brazen Chariots is an undoubted classic of tank warfare in the desert during the Second World War but, for Bob Crisp, it was a memoir of just a couple of years in a life of extraordinary adventure.

First, the book: it conveys the heat, the dust, the confusion and, tellingly, the exhiliration that some men feel during combat. Crisp was one such man: extreme situations plugged him into the mains current of life and he revelled in them as much as it’s possible to revel in a battle where death and injury is a constant companion. Brazen Chariots is a brilliant account of fighting in tanks in the desert. But it is only a small part of Crisp’s story.

Not a family man, Crisp nevertheless fathered two sons, who learned of their father’s exploits during the Second World War by reading about them in a comic: Crisp’s adventures were featured as true-life story of heroism. By that time, Crisp had left their mother. There were many, many women in Crisp’s life. His portrait gives a picture of the man.

Robert Crisp

It’s the sort of half smile to break many a girl’s heart. But generally Crisp left his women happy. Towards the end of his life, when he lived in Greece, one of Crisp’s sons flew out to meet his father again. Walking into a taverna, he found his father surrounded by ten adoring women, ranging from 20 to 50. Crisp was living in Greece because, aged 60, he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Faced with death (again) Crisp decided to walk around Crete with a donkey. Rather than dying, he thrived, attracting legions of besotted women.

This was par for his wayward course. Crisp was also a cricketer, good enough to play for South Africa in test matches and the only man to have taken four wickets in four balls twice. He climbed Mount Kilimanjaro twice, the second time having to carry his climbing partner, who had broken his leg on the ascent, back down the mountain.

A South African, Crisp was also one of the founders of Drum newspaper, a radical paper for the black townships of his country. As was the pattern of his life, Crisp later fell out with his partners and went off to try something new: running a mink farm, writing for newspapers, gambling.

Nothing else ever really had the intensity of warfare: Crisp had six tanks shot or burned out under him during the war; he was mentioned in dispatches four times, awarded the Military Cross and would have received the Victoria Cross if General Montgomery had not personally stopped the award on account of Crisp’s lack of respect for senior officers and ill-discipline.

Some men are bigger than their books. Crisp towered over his.

Adventures with Words: The Men Who Made the SAS by Gavin Mortimer

The Men Who Made the SAS by Gavin Mortimer

The title is an excellent example of a publisher shoehorning a mention of a ‘sexier’ subject into the title to pick up readers. The book is actually about the subtitle: The History of the Long Range Desert Group. The LRDG was set up to do exactly what it said: scout and reconnoitre at long range in the desert. The SAS was a separate organisation and while there was a degree of overlap between the two, and some rivalry, they remained two separate organisations throughout World War II.

The Long Range Desert Group really doesn’t need the spurious association: their exploits were just as extraordinary as those of the SAS. Driving deep, deep into the desert, navigating by a combination of speed/distance and compass bearings (the maps were blank for the areas they were going into) they went far far behind enemy lines, lying low there sometimes for weeks at a time, observing, recording, reporting and sometimes attacking. It was this experience of operating independently behind enemy lines for long periods of time that laid the foundations for the Chindits and later special forces operations.

The story of how Major Ralph Bagnold, an inter-war scientist, explored the desert and then used his expertise in desert exploration to set up and train the LRDG is fascinating, as are the many extraordinary characters who became members of the LRDG. Right from the off, the LRDG prioritised men who could think for themselves, setting it outside the usual terms of military reference, and the men who found a home within the organisation more than repaid Bagnold’s faith in them.

It’s also interesting for how, the Desert War won, the LRDG attempted to find a new role for itself in the war for Europe – with relatively little success. The techniques that worked in the desert were not nearly so successful in Europe, leading to the Group’s eventual disbandment. But the template laid down by the LRDG would inform the operations and training of all the later Special Forces units. The book is a fitting tribute to these intrepid men.

Adventures with Words: The Hunter by Tom Wood

The Hunter by Tom Wood

Part of my day job is writing stories where Space Marines blast aliens – and Chaos corrupted humans – into blood and viscera smeared pieces. Writing battles and fights is something I do, whether it is Anglo-Saxon England or the grim dark of the far future.

So it’s quite something for me to say that I found The Hunter just too violent. It’s not that it’s bad – far fromt it, Tom Wood writes a taut, thrilling story – it’s simply that the body count is so astronomically high that having finished the first in the Victor the Assassin series I have absolutely no wish to read any more of his adventures. Which is a shame, as Victor looks like he could be an interesting protagonist – not many assassins for hire have an annual confession stop, where they go to a priest to confess their sins – but I’m afraid it’s just too violent for me. I mean, the first chapter saw Victor killing eight people, one a woman, sent to kill him, and the body count simply escalated thereafter. I like to think the death of people means something, even if they are themselves killers, and the sheer number of people Victor kills makes this impossible. So, not for me. But if you like ultra-violent, high-pace thrillers, then it could be for you.

Adventures with Words: The Long War for Britannia 367-644 by Edwin Pace

The Long War for Britannia by Edwin Pace

History is difficult without sources. For the two centuries between the Romans leaving in 410 and the mission of St Augustine, who arrived in Kent in 597, we have the barest handful of contemporary documents. It might not matter, if not for the fact that these centuries were the foundation of everything that happened afterwards in Britain: the Romano-Celtic Britannia that slipped out of history at the start of the 5th century reappeared in the 7th century as a country divided, with Anglo-Saxon kingdoms controlling what would become England, Welsh-speaking princedoms in Wales, and Scotland split between Pictish and Irish kingdoms.

Later historians, starting with Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and going on to medieval writers, told the history of these missing centuries, recounting how the pagan Anglo-Saxons had arrived in Britain and displaced the native Britons. But these were histories written centuries after the events they described, and over the last half century historians and archaeologists have grown increasingly sceptical about the value of these accounts. In particular, the findings of archaeologists have served to cast doubt on the one-off departure of the Romans and the ethnic cleansing narrative of the Anglo-Saxon conquest.

However, on its own, archaeology provides snapshots: it struggles to construct a narrative. Abandoning the ancient sources has left us in an ahistorical darkness, with almost no named actors. In The Long War for Britannia, Edwin Pace has stepped bravely into the dark, mounting a thoroughgoing examination and defence of the ancient sources.

His argument is based in large part upon systematising the differences between the various accounts of the time. Pace argues that many of the discrepancies that have caused historians to discredit writers such as the 9th-century Nennius were caused by mistakes the medieval authors made in trying to fit dates originally calculated by the Roman consular calendar and insular regnal dating into the Anno Domini system adopted by the Venerable Bede. Pace also argues that the key contemporary writer, Gildas, who wrote his On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain around AD 530 by Pace’s reckoning, can be understood by placing his work into the theological framework of the monk. Working off these arguments, Pace concludes that there really was a King Arthur and that he can be identified as the Proud Tyrant of Gildas’ polemic – an unusual but fascinating conclusion.

Pace goes on to identify other people from legend as real historical characters, most notably arguing the Uther Pendragon was actually the 7th-century Mercian King Penda, the last great pagan Anglo-Saxon king. With his mastery of the written and archaeological sources, Edwin Pace has mounted a thoroughgoing and compelling argument for elements from the ancient authors as being worthy of the attention of serious historians. Many historians and archaeologists will disagree with Pace’s conclusions but, together with Miles Russell’s recent book Arthur and the Kings of Britain, there is now a serious, if not necessarily convincing, argument for looking at the ancient chroniclers afresh. Highly recommended for anyone with a deep interest in the roots of England.

The Seven Kingdoms of Old England: Kent

King Vortigern asking Hengist for the hand of his daughter, Rowena, in marriage.

Kent was where, according to tradition, the first kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons was established. Only, the kings of Kent were not Angles or Saxons. They were Jutes, from the north of the Jutland Peninsula. The social organization of Kent was significantly different from those of the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, with only one class of noble as opposed to the two in other kingdoms, while Kentish peasants (ceorls) were also more important than those in the other kingdoms.

According to legend, the first kings of Kent were the brothers, Hengist and Horsa. They were mercenaries for hire who were invited to Britain by Vortigern to fight against the Picts who were raiding down the east coast following the collapse of Roman power. In the declining years of the western Roman Empire it was not at all unusual for barbarian mercenaries to be hired to fight barbarian raiders, so there’s nothing intrinsically unlikely about the tale. It was, however, later embroidered to include details such as Vortigern becoming infatuated with Hengist’s daughter Rowena and signing over Kent to her father in return for the daughter.

It’s only with the long reign of King Æthelberht that historical evidence for the kingdom emerges. The kings of Kent maintained close relations with the Merovingian kings across the Channel, trading widely with them and, as a result, having greater wealth at their disposal than other kings in Britain. It was this wealth that gave Æthelberht the political clout to be regarded as Bretwalda and it enabled his marriage to a Frankish princess, Bertha. Bertha was Christian, however, and the marriage was contracted on the basis that she would remain so. In 599, Æthelberht received a mission of Italians, come all the way from Rome, that was led by a monk called Augustine who had been dispatched by the pope to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons. Æthelberht accepted the new religion, and installed Augustine at Canterbury, making the church there the mother church of the country.

Kentish dominance did not survive Æthelberht and, while the kingdom remained rich, there was savage internecine strife in the ruling family. Thus weakened, in the latter part of the seventh century Kent came under the domination of Mercia, which continued off and on until the rise of the West Saxons in the early ninth century, when the kingdom became part of Wessex. As such, Kent played a key part in Alfred’s struggle against the Vikings, coming to the fore in the Viking attacks during the 890s, the last decade of Alfred’s reign, when the threat of the Northmen was broken for a century.

Adventures with Words: Sink the Bismarck! by CS Forester

Sink the Bismarck! by CS Forester

C.S. Forester is better known for his Horatio Hornblower novels but this World War II novella is well worth a read. Sticking to the events around the hunt for the German battleship Bismarck, Forester tells a gripping story, interpolating invented dialogue – we obviously have no record of what was actually said on the command deck of the Bismarck – with a masterful narrative account of the events.

The main flaw is one that Forester could not have remedied when writing the book: we now know that British intelligence had cracked the German Enigma code but when Forester wrote his book this was still top secret. I would like to read an account of the hunt for the Bismarck that includes this so we can learn how much difference this knowledge made.

Adventures with Words: Holes by Louis Sachar

Holes by Louis Sachar

With the explosion in children and young adults’ fiction over the last twenty-five years set off by JK Rowling’s Harry Potter book you’d think there would have been many great books among the bomb. But, as with all publishing explosions, most of it is mediocre and the best is just good, rather than being great. Holes might just be an exception: it really might be great. We’ll only know for sure in fifty years time, but even now, nearly twenty five years after it was first published, the story holds up really well. It’s helped in this by having narratives set in different time periods, so it’s less tied to the present than most children’s books, but most of all it’s the way that Sachar brilliantly structures his story that makes it stand out. He weaves the apparently disparate storylines into each other and then, at the climax, brings them all together in what is something of a masterpiece of resolution.

It also avoids the if-you-want-it-hard-enough-you’ll-get-it cliche that bedevils modern children’s fiction and films: the book has lessons and wisdom to impart, but they are lessons and knowledge hard won – like digging holes in the hot sun.

Æthelstan the Glorious

Æthelstan.

The first portrait of a king of England was made of Æthelstan (894-939).

In 934, on his way north, Æthelstan stopped at Chester-le-Street to visit St Cuthbert. Admittedly, Cuthbert had been dead for two and a half centuries, but his power as a saint and intercessor continue. This power was made all the more potent for when the king arrived, the monks reverently opened the sarcophagus containing the saint’s body to reveal it as incorrupt.

In token of his appreciation for the intercession of the saint, Æthelstan commissioned a splendid Gospel Book and presented it to the monks at Chester-le-Street (they would later move Cuthbert to Durham, where his body still resides in the cathedral). On the back of the first folio is a picture of a king presenting a book to a saint. Although neither are named, they are clearly Æthelstan and Cuthbert: the king is crowned yet still he bows before the great sanctity of the saint. For his part, Cuthbert has his right hand raised in blessing to the humble king before him. By his gift, and his honour, Æthelstan won the blessing of the most renowned saint of Northumbria, a force in heaven and a blessing among his people on earth, and he left us his portrait, the first direct depiction of a king in English history.

Edward the Elder – Alfred’s forgotten son

Edward the Elder (874-924)

Edward was old enough to remember the night when his father, Alfred, had had to flee for his life, taking his family to the marshy refuge of Athelney. He had had to wait, a child, for word as to whether his father had prevailed at the Battle of Edington or whether he would have to run again. He had been raised to fight the Viking invaders, taking his place as his father’s chief lieutenant when still a teenager, and proving worthy of that trust.

Such an upbringing inculcated a savage certainty of purpose. Through no fault or oversight of his would Edward give advantage to those pagans who would ravage his realm. To that end, he approached his marriages as the business of a king, making and breaking queens – three of them in the end – to serve his political purposes.

But there was one woman Edward did not put aside, for she had his full confidence as the other hand of the strategy he had inherited from his father: Æthelflæd, Edward’s sister, reigned as lord of Mercia, first securing her kingdom and then joining Edward in his assault on the Danelaw. Edward’s trust, however, did not extend to Æthelflæd’s daughter. When his sister died, some in Mercia would have installed Ælfwynn as a new ‘Lady of the Mercians’ but Edward removed her to a convent and brought the kingdom under his rule, the first king of a combined Wessex and Mercia.

Elves and Dwarves in Anglo-Saxon England

Illustration by E. Stuart Hardy

Apart from the gods, the Anglo-Saxons believed in many other classes of supernatural beings, including Elves and Dwarves. These beings were regarded with wary respect: they could occasionally be helpful to people, but they were more likely to do them harm.

This was something particularly associated with Elves (‘ælf’ in Old English). There were charms against ‘elf shot’, the invisible darts the Elves could shoot into people that caused sudden illnesses, and propitiatory rituals that were practised near sites associated with Elves. While Elves were clearly seen as dangerous, there must have been good fortune associated with them also, since so many parents gave their children names using the ‘ælf’ prefix, ‘Ælfred’ the Great not least among them, and it seems passing unlikely that parents would name their sons after implacably malevolent beings.

Dweorgas (dwarves) were creatures of barrows and mountains, smiths who might help people if aid was sought from them. Less fickle than the Elves, the service of a Dwarf might be bought by offering the Dwarf something he wanted in exchange for his skills as a smith. But woe to you if you tried to cheat a Dwarf of his due: their memories of double dealing were long and they liked revenge served cold.