The Rise and Fall of King Edwin

Although Bede presents the council as approving the change to the new religion, Edwin himself did not convert . After all, the old gods had been kind to him. He had overcome his persecutor, Æthelfrith. His mentor, Rædwald, had died, probably of natural causes, leaving him the most powerful king in Britain. He had cemented an alliance with the Christian kingdom of Kent through his new wife. Why rock the altar?

It was a close encounter with death that decided Edwin to change religion. A rival king sent a suicide assassin but one of Edwin’s men took the blow intended for the king. In the struggle, Edwin was still wounded by the poisoned dagger. At the time of the attack, Queen Æthelburh was in labour and gave birth to a daughter that night. Edwin swore that if the new god gave him victory over the rival king, then he would pay him back, by his own conversion and by allowing the baptism of his new daughter.

Edwin duly recovered and waged punitive war against his rival, returning with enough heads to conclude that the deal had been sealed. He would tie his future fortunes to the new god.

The question was what would happen should the new god’s favour not always lead to victory and glory. After all, if it was simply a matter of signing up to a new religion and all your wishes coming true there would only be one religion in the world.

The fragility of the new faith was exposed when, in one of the catastrophic reverses that was a fatal feature of kingship during this era, Edwin, at the height of his power, lost the Battle of Hatfield Chase and his life too.

His queen fled to Kent with their children. Her priest, Paulinus, who had baptised hundreds of converts, fled too, later becoming Bishop of Rochester.

The church that Edwin had converted to and fostered essentially collapsed.

After all, in the currency of power, death in battle was the great bankruptcy.

The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok

Ragnar Lothbrok

Listen. Do you hear? That sound. That is the sound of lamentation. Sigurd the dragonslayer and Brynhild the Fair are dead. The trees whisper it, the rivers carry tidings to the heaving, restless sea; the rain and the wind, the sun and the stars tell the news: Sigurd is dead. Brynhild has departed.

There was a man who heard the whisper of rain and wind, who saw the tears of the sun and the grief of the stars. That man was Heimir, foster-father to Brynhild, and his grief for the fair Brynhild was as great as if she had been the daughter of his loins. Then Heimir laid down his plough and put aside his crown and forsook his kingdom. For Brynhild and Sigurd had had a daughter, Aslaug, and they had asked Heimir to take her as foster-daughter in turn. However, Aslaug being yet only three years old, Heimir had not yet brought her to his own kingdom. But now Heimir put aside all else, even his grief, and rushed to Aslaug. For Sigurd had thrown down many men in his might and now that he was dead and fear of him no longer held his enemies in thrall, they would seek vengeance on his living memory, that the seed of Sigurd and Brynhild be utterly destroyed in this middle-earth.

Heimir brought Aslaug back to his kingdom, Hlymdal. But soon the news began to spread that the flesh of Sigurd and Brynhild lived with Heimir. For Aslaug, even as a child, was too beautiful not to be marked. Rumour spread, faster than frost: the child of Sigurd and Brynhild the Fair lives in Hlymdal. Heimir, listening, heard the howling, distant but coming closer. The wolves were gathering.

There was no keeping Aslaug in Hlymdal. But Heimir realised that he could not just flee, for wherever he went, the girl’s beauty and bearing would tell her lineage. No, he must go, but in going keep his foster-daughter hidden, always, when they were in sight of men.

So Heimir had a marvellous harp made with cunning and craft that Aslaug, who was yet little, might be hidden within it. And with her, in the harp, Heimir stowed precious things: gold and silver, and fine clothes, for he foresaw that they would travel far. Then, leaving his kingdom, Heimir set forth, a wanderer, a beggar carrying a harp that he might play for his supper and his bed. They wandered far. Whenever they were far from the eyes of men, Heimir would take the harp apart and let little Aslaug bathe. For food while Aslaug was shut in the harp, he gave to her a wine-leek for its virtue is such that a person may live long on it, even when she has no other food to eat. And when Aslaug cried, for fear of the dark and the confinement of her safety, Heimir would play the harp, quietening her, for he was marvellously skilled at the harp.

In his wanderings, Heimir came to Norway, to a farm called Spangareid. An old couple lived there, Áke and his wife Grima. But when Heimir knocked on their door, Grima answered, for old Áke was gone to the forest where he was chopping wood.

“Why come you here, stranger?” Grima asked.

“I mean you no harm, old woman,” said Heimir. “I am a wanderer, a beggar, far from home. I ask only space near the fire that I might warm these old bones.”

“You’ll be asking me to feed you once you’re sitting by the fire, I’ll be bound,” said Grima.

But Heimir held up his hands, blue with cold. “I am a harpist. I want only to warm these fingers before the black cold takes them.”

“All right,” said Grima. “I’ll let you in. No food, mind. We’ve none to spare for beggars.”

As Grima fed the fire, Heimir set his harp down beside him then held his hands to the flames. But Grima, sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued, sharp-witted Grima, saw something hanging from the harp and as she bustled around the farmhouse she looked closer and saw it was a piece of the richest cloth. Then, looking to Heimir, she saw gold glint through the rags wrapping his fingers. Grima realised that this was no ordinary beggar.

“Listen, beggar. I spoke harshly to you, for we see few enough people here on our farm. Stay a while, for my husband will be back soon from the forest, and I will give you to eat, and a place to sleep tonight.”

Heimir looked at the crafty old woman but the snow blindness dimmed his sight and he did not see the guile glint in her eye.

“I am grateful, old woman. I fear another night in the open would be the end of me.”

“Let me show you where you can sleep.”

So the old woman took Heimir to the barley barn and he lay down there, with the harp beside him, to sleep amid the warm sacks of barley.

While Heimir slept, Grima set to her tasks, but she was too excited to do much. So when Áke, her husband, came home, he found the house unswept, the fire unbanked, and the animals not fed.

Áke looked round, then looked to sharp-eyed Grima and said, “You must be very happy. For every day, I work, chopping wood and hauling it home until my fingers bleed while you sit by the fire and do nothing.”

Then sharp-tongued Grima said, “Would you like to do the work of a moment and, by that work, keep us fat and contented all the rest of our lives?”

“What work is that, old woman?” asked Áke.

“A man came to our farm today. An old man, a beggar he said. But I saw, with these sharp eyes, the gold glint from his finger and gold cloth in his harp. He is very old but I think he must have been a great warrior when he was young. I put him in the barley barn and he is lying there.” Grima looked at her husband. “Fast asleep.”

But Áke shook his head. “No. No. I will not do this thing that you ask.”

Sharp-tongued Grima cut him with her tongue. “Why did I marry a weakling? My mother told me to marry Svein. He wouldn’t have hesitated. If you won’t kill him, Áke, then so help me, I’ll take the beggar man for my husband and we’ll drive you out. You weren’t here when he came: you didn’t hear the honey words he poured over me. But I would not listen – I vowed to stay true to my husband. Much good that does me! Mark this, Áke, and mark it well: I’ll take him to my bed and kill you if you don’t take this chance.” Grima put her hand on Áke’s arm. “We won’t get another chance like this, Áke.”

Then Áke nodded his head and he took his axe and sharpened it. Grima brought Áke to where Heimir lay sleeping, the harp by his side. He was snoring.

“Do it!” whispered Grima. “But run away after you strike, lest he lay hand on you.” Then Grima took the harp and ran back to the farmhouse.

Áke took his axe and stood beside the sleeping, snoring Heimir. He raised his axe and brought it down but, striking, the axe caught on bone and flew from his hands. Heimir roared from his sleep, limbs thrashing, and Áke fled from the barn. But the blow was deep, a death blow, although such were Heimir’s death throes that the whole barn came down about him.

Áke found Grima in the farmhouse with the harp.

“It’s done,” he said.

“We’ll be rich,” said Grima. “Mark my words.”

But the old man shook his head. “This won’t end well. His blood will bring down blood on us.”

“Pah,” said the old lady. And she opened the harp.

But, inside, they found a little girl, although there was also gold.

“This will end badly,” said Áke.

“It’s true,” said Grima, “she is not what I expected. Who are you?” But to whatever question they asked, Aslaug gave no answer. It was as if she had no speech.

“This is bad,” said Áke.

“Nonsense,” said Grima. “I need some help around the house. She will be called Kráka, after my mother, and I will say, if anyone asks, that she is our daughter.”

“No one will believe you,” said Áke. “We’re both so ugly. No one will believe Kráka is our daughter.”

“I will make her ugly,” said Grima. “I will shave her head, and tar it, and dress her in rags, so people will think she is my daughter. Besides, husband, don’t you remember how beautiful I was in my youth?”

 Áke looked at her. “No,” he said.

“Oh, shut up,” said Grima. And she set the girl to doing all the hardest chores on the farm. There Kráka grew up, in poverty and silence.


In Gautland there was a jarl named Herrud. He was wealthy and powerful, and he had a daughter named Þóra. Of all women she was the most beautiful and her manner was as lovely and gracious as her appearance. Her nickname was Fortress-Hart, for she excelled other women as the deer excels other animals. Herrud doted on his daughter, and had a bower made for her use, near his hall. Every day Herrud would send Þóra a gift. One day he sent her a little snake of great beauty. Þóra liked the snake and put it in a box with a piece of gold for its bed. But at once the snake began to grow, so that within a few days it was too big for its box, and it lay curled round it. Once out of the box, the snake grew the quicker, so that it soon lay wrapped around Þóra’s bower and none might enter or leave save only the man who brought the serpent its food: a whole ox. The gold beneath the snake grew with it too, so that it lay upon a great hoard. Then Herrud swore an oath that whatever man killed the snake and freed Þóra would have Þóra as his wife and the snake’s gold as her dowry. Many men heard this, but none dared to face the serpent, for it had grown very great indeed.

The king of Denmark was Sigurd Hring. His fame was great, for he had killed Harald Wartooth at the battle of Bravellir.

Ragnar was son of Sigurd. He was a giant among men, handsome, feared by his enemies and beloved of his friends. He had already gathered men to his warship and earned a reputation as a great warrior when he heard of the promise Jarl Herrud had made. But Ragnar made no oath, nor did he talk of the serpent that had imprisoned Þóra. Instead, he had some clothes made: shaggy trousers and a shaggy cape, which he boiled in tar. Then he sailed to Gautland and pulled his warship up on a beach not far from Jarl Harrud’s hall. But Ragnar did not go to greet the jarl that night. Instead, he woke early, before anyone else had got up, and Ragnar put on the tar-covered trousers and cape he had made, and he took a spear from the rack. Climbing down from his ship, Ragnar rolled on the beach, covering his trousers and cloak in sand. Then he removed the rivet holding the spear head on its shaft.

Ragnar went through the dawn to the jarl’s hall. All were sleeping there. Ragnar went to Þóra’s bower. He saw the serpent coiled round it, asleep. At once, he stabbed it with the spear. Pulling the spear out, he stabbed again, cutting through the serpent’s spine, and he twisted the spear so the spear head broke off.

In its death throes, a stream of acid blood gushed from the serpent, striking Ragnar. But the shaggy cloak and shaggy trousers protected him from the deadly blood.

Þóra, wakened by the death agony of the serpent, saw a hooded man striding away and she called after him. But Ragnar did not turn, and answered in riddle, before walking away.

Þóra wondered who the man might be who had killed the serpent and freed her: could such a giant be a man? When Jarl Harrud, wakened by the serpent’s death thrashing, came he found the spear point embedded in the animal’s spine but so great was its size that Harrud too wondered if a man could have wielded such a weapon.

Then Þóra advised her father to call a great assembly of the people. For whoever had killed the serpent would carry the shaft that fitted the spear head that had slain the snake.

Ragnar and his men heard the call to assembly and went to it, sitting apart from the other men.

Jarl Harrud stood and spoke to his people. “The snake that held my daughter captive is dead and the man who killed it left in the beast its death. Let he who wielded that spear bring it forward and I shall keep my promise to him, whatever his degree.” Many men tried, but no one had a spear shaft that matched the spear head.

Then Ragnar stood forth, and claimed the spear was his, and fitted the spear head to the shaft he carried. News of this deed spread through all the Northlands and beyond; Ragnar’s name was sung from the white north to Miklagard itself.  Jarl Harrud, right glad at so worthy a match, gave Þóra to be Ragnar’s wife, and he took her home to Denmark. Ragnar loved Þóra and she gave him two sons, Eirek and Agnar. They grew to be great men.

But then Þóra took sick and died. In his grief, Ragnar put aside his kingdom, giving it to the keeping of others, and to still his sorrow he took his warship and went viking.

One morning when they were anchored in a small inlet, Ragnar’s men woke early and took the rowing boat and rowed to land to bake bread. On the beach, they saw a farm not far away and the men took their wheat to the farm so that they might use its oven. An old woman greeted them, chewing her breakfast though she had no teeth. The men asked her name and the old lady said, “My name is Grima. Who are you?”

“We are the men of the great Ragnar Loðbrók. Now help us bake his bread.”

But the old woman held up her hands. Her fingers were twisted and bent. “These old hands can’t do such hard work. But I have a daughter who can do the baking for you. Her name is Kráka, but she has grown so headstrong I can bare control her. Ask her yourself when she gets back.”

For Kráka had taken the cattle to water in the morning. But as she watered the cattle, she had seen the great ship, moored in the inlet, with painted shields lining its sides and the painted head of a great serpent at its prow. Seeing the ship, Kráka undressed and washed herself, despite Grima having forbidden it. Then she brushed her golden hair that had grown long, hanging down to the ground. For few people came to Spangareid and, with so few visitors, Grima had grown lazy and stopped shaving the hair from Kráka’s head.

Leading the cattle, Kráka came home. And the men, bent over the fire, stopped what they were doing when they saw her and they turned to Grima and asked, “Is this your daughter?”

“She is,” said Grima.

“How can that be,” said the men, “when she is so beautiful and you are so ugly?”

“Don’t judge this old woman in her age: I was a beauty too when I was young.”

The men asked Kráka to help them bake the bread, telling her to knead the dough into loaves that they would then bake. Kráka bent over the dough, kneading it, then handing it to the men when each loaf was ready. But the men could not stop turning to stare at her, so that they burned all the bread as they baked it.

The bread baked, although burnt, they returned to the ship. But when they served the bread to the crew, the crew complained that they had never been given such burnt bread.

“You had one task,” said Ragnar, who hungered. “You could not even do that.”

“It’s not our fault,” said the men. “There was this woman there, and she was so beautiful we could not stop staring at her, and so we burned the bread.”

“No woman is as beautiful as Þóra,” said Ragnar and his voice was low and threatening.

But the men, desiring to excuse themselves, did not hear the threat but protested all the more that the woman they had seen was indeed more beautiful than Þóra.

Then Ragnar spoke. “I will send other men and they will bring back report of this woman of whom you speak. If it be as you say, then I will pardon your incompetence. But if she be one whit less beautiful than Þóra, then you will die.”

But when Ragnar’s messengers tried to sail to the beach, the headwind was too great and they could not reach the land.

Denied, Ragnar’s eagerness to see this maiden waxed and he told his men to give her this message: “If she is truly more beautiful than Þóra, then I want her for my bed. Tell her I will meet her, but that she must come to Ragnar Loðbrók naked but clothed, full yet hungry, alone and with company.”

When the wind turned, Ragnar’s messengers set sail. They landed and went up to the farmhouse and found Kráka waiting for them there. Then they looked upon her and saw that the reports of her beauty were nothing less than the truth: she was indeed more fair than Þóra the Fair. Then the messengers bowed before her, and told her they came with word from Ragnar Loðbrók, renowned throughout the northlands. And they gave her his message.

Grima, hearing it, cackled. “The famous Ragnar is mad. No maid may come to him in such a way.”

But Kráka said, “I will come to your ship tomorrow, as the great Ragnar Loðbrók commands.”

She watched the messengers sail back to Ragnar’s warship, moored in the bay. And through the night, Kráka thought upon Ragnar’s message. Then, when dawn was breaking, she went to see Áke. The old man was chopping wood. His dog, the only creature he loved, snarled at Kráka when he smelled her, but she ignored the animal.

“Will you lend me your fishing net?” Kráka asked him. “I will catch us some fish for our lunch.”

“Take it,” said Áke. “Saves me getting wet and cold, standing in the bay.”

“I’ll need to take the dog too,” said Kráka, “or the gulls will steal the fish.”

“About time someone else did some work round here,” said Áke. “Go with her dog.” The dog, disguntled, followed Kráka back to the farmhouse. In the house, Kráka took an onion, then stripped her shift off and, naked, wrapped Áke’s net around her body and draped her long hair over her breasts.

“Come, dog,” Kráka said and, with the animal following, she went down to the bay. Grima, returning from the well saw her walking down to the beach: naked yet clothed, alone but with company. And she realised, suddenly, the wit of the girl who had been so long her drudge.

“But she is not full yet hungry.”

Then Grima saw Kráka raise the onion to her lips, bite into it, chew and then spit it out.

“Ragnar will smell the onion and know she has eaten but is not sated.”

Overnight, Ragnar, eager to see the fair maid, had moved his warship closer to the beach. Now, seeing her upon the strand, he called to her, asking if she was the one whom men said was fairer than Þóra the Fair.

“I come at the bidding of Ragnar, renowned through all the northlands – no maid would dare refuse him. As you commanded, I stand before you naked yet clothed, neither hungry nor full, alone but with a companion.”

“Come to me,” called Ragnar.

“I will come to you if you promise me and my companion safe conduct,” said the brave maiden.

“You shall have it,” said Ragnar. He sent his men to row her to the warship.

When Kráka stood before him, naked yet clothed, the blood rose in Ragnar Loðbrók as it had not done since Þóra took sick, and he reached for her. But Áke’s dog, seeing this, bit Ragnar’s hand. Then Ragnar’s men prised the animal’s jaws apart and pulled it off the king and strangled it. Thus died the only creature that Áke, the old man, loved.

The wound was not deep, and Ragnar seated Kráka beside him while it was bound and spoke with her.

“The kindness of a king might expect to be repaid by the embrace of a fair maid,” he said, and as he spoke he had his men lay out rich cloth and gold and jewels before Kráka.

But the wily maid replied, “A true king keeps his word. You have promised me safe conduct: surely you will honour your oath and let me go hence, a maid intact.”

Ragnar looked upon Kráka and saw that she was truly more beautiful than Þóra. So he said to her, “I would wish that you come with me.”

Kráka shook her head. “I know well you have set forth upon some task: you are a-viking, and it may well be that when you return you will have forgotten me. But know this, O King. If, when you sail again past the farm at Spangareid, you remember me, then I will give thought again on coming with you to your land.”

Ragnar had his men bring forth a dress of woven gold, one that Þóra herself had worn, and laid it before Kráka.

But Kráka refused the gift. “What suits this maid, who drives the goats and cattle to water, are rags, not the fine clothes of Þóra the All-Fair. Nor can I wear such clothes while I live with Grima and Áke. But if you still wish me to go with you when you return, then send your men to call for me and I will listen to their words.”

Ragnar swore oath upon his gold armband that he would not forget Kráka. But Kráka gave him no more answer, and Ragnar had his men take her back to shore. Then, with the wind shifting, Ragnar set sail, to finish his viking.

But always before his eyes was the memory of the maid who had come to him naked and yet clothed.

Then came the evening when, looking to the bay, Kráka saw the snake-prowed ship riding there, and men rowing to shore.

“The king has returned for you, as he swore,” they said.

“I will come with you in the morning,” said Kráka. “I must make my farewell.”

As the sun rose, Kráka went to where Grima and Áke lay abed.

“You think me too young to remember what you did when first I came to you: how, though bound by guest law, you killed my foster-father, Heimir the Faithful. But I remember well.” Kráka pointed at Áke. “I killed the dog, which alone you loved, for in truth none could love Grima Sharp-Tongue. I could have paid you back myself, killing you as you slept just as you killed Heimir, but in memory of the years I have lived with you I have stayed my hand. But know this: I now pronounce your doom. From today, each day that passes shall be worse than the day it follows, and the worst shall be your last. Now, we part forever.”

Then Kráka went to where the boat waited for her, and she boarded Ragnar’s warship. The king welcomed her but when night came and he would sleep with her, Kráka refused.

“Before I come to your bed, I would have a wedding feast, and a welcome in your land, that any heirs I bear for you be accepted by all.”

Ragnar, hearing the wisdom of this, accepted, but urged his men to sail all the faster.

Then, coming to his kingdom, Ragnar ordered a great wedding feast and Ragnar and Kráka were married. But that night, when Ragnar would lie with her for the first time, Kráka put her finger to his lips.

 “Wait,” she said. “You have waited long, but wait three nights more. For if we share a bed tonight, then my heart tells me the child I bear shall suffer for our impatience.”

 But Ragnar roared with laughter. “I have waited months, Kráka, months. I have given you gold and silver, my kingdom and my heart. I will wait no longer.”

 So that night they were joined, and their marriage healed the pain of Þóra’s loss. But the telling of Kráka’s heart proved true, for their first child, born of that first coupling, was born with gristle where his bones should have been, and he was named Ivar the Boneless. Though boundless in wit, his men had to bear him on their shields for he could barely walk.

There were other sons born to Ragnar and Kráka: Bjorn, Hvitserk and Rognvald. But some of Ragnar’s men began to whisper that it was not fit for so great a king to be married to a peasant. Eystein, king of the Swedes, had a daughter of great beauty. Better for Ragnar to put Kráka aside and marry the daughter of a king. But Kráka, hearing tell of this, spoke to Ragnar when they lay abed and told him the tale of how she was Aslaug, the daughter of Sigurd and Brynhild the Fair. But Ragnar would not believe her tale. Then Kráka said, “If my words be true, then the son who sits now in my belly will bear a mark like a snake lying in his eye and you will call him Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye.”

So it was. Kráka gave birth to a baby boy and when he opened his eyes for the first time, Ragnar saw there a mark like a coiled snake. And all men came to know that Kráka was, in truth, Aslaug, daughter of Sigurd Dragon Slayer and Brynhild the Fair.

The tale of their sons is told in the saga of the sons of Ragnar. There too is told of how Ragnar met his death when King Ælle cast him into a pit of serpents, and Ragnar had his end by the bite of a snake who had first gained his glory by the slaying of the great serpent. There too is told how the sons of Ragnar took terrible vengeance for the killing of their father, and many other things beside. But now, this tale of Ragnar Loðbrók is done.

Adventures in Bookland: Suleiman the Magnificent by Hourly History

Suleiman the Magnificent by Hourly History

A short but thorough, within the limitations of the space, introduction to Suleiman, tenth sultan of the Ottoman Empire and the man who raised it to the height of its power and prestige. While the European princes of the Renaissance, Charles V, Francis I and Henry VIII, vied for prestige and power, Suleiman brooded in the east, exquisitely aware of his power and even more exquisitely, indeed excruciatingly, aware of the lack of his family’s prestige with respect to the ancient monarchies of Europe. By the high point of his reign, all that had changed: the crowns of Europe glanced nervously eastwards to the brooding sultan in his Sublime Porte. Indeed, it is quite likely that Suleiman’s presence made possible the enduring split in Christendom that produced the Reformation: Charles V could never devote all his forces to defeating the Reformation due to the ever-present threat of Suleiman – a man who regared Charles’ imperial title as Holy Roman Emperor as a direct personal insult for there can only be one emperor and, so far as Suleiman was concerned, that emperor was him. A well written gallop through a most important reign.

Adventures in Bookland: Highest Duty by Chesley Sullenberger

If it wasn’t for just over two and a half minutes, no one outside his immediate circle of family and colleagues would ever have heard of Captain Chesley Sullenberger and he would certainly not have written – with some help from Jeffrey Zaslow – an autobiography. In some ways, Sullenberger’s life is an exemplar of the ordinary, a man who does his job, raises his family and, in the normal course of events, is barely noticed outside of the circles he moves in. So it was interesting to see if an ordinary life could also be extraordinary enough to sustain a 350-page book. It was. I’m both pleased and relieved to be able to say that, since most of us lead lives that are no more – but also no less – remarkable than Sullenberger’s. There is a beauty, an accomplishment, in a normal life lived well that comes across strongly in this book: a man doing his job and raising his family. Of course, a sizeable chunk of the book looks at the events and aftermath of Flight 1549 but reading the book you realise that what Sullenberger says is true: he was able to deal with this unimaginable emergency because of all the building blocks of experience and decision that had gone into his life up to that point. An ordinary life? The sort of ordinary life that saves worlds.

Adventures in Bookland: Panic Room by Robert Goddard

As a fifty-something man of little standing in the world, I heartily applaud the central premise of this entertaining book: that a fifty-something man of little standing in the world can be the hero of an adventure that includes saving the world, outsmarting a billionaire bad guy and getting the, much younger, girl along the way (I should add, as a happily married man, that the latter simply applies to my middle-aged fantasy self and in no way comprises my real wishes!). So let’s hear it for Don Challenor, down-on-his-luck estate agent (he’s just been let go by his previous employer), who is employed by his ex-wife to value the Cornish hideaway of a mysterious and reclusive billionaire. (Add in to the mix the middle-aged male wish fulfilment fantasy of Don rescuing his ex-wife, she having to admit that he was a better man all along than her new husband, and him still getting the much younger new girl – in fact, there’s so much middle-aged male wish fulfilment in this book I begin to wonder if Robert Goddard might be having a little bit of a mid-life crisis!)

On the minus side, I had realised the twist of what was concealed in the panic room within the first hundred pages. This, though, did mean I could indulge myself in the greatest of all guilty pleasures for the reader: skipping ahead, skimming pages of text, for the simple pleasure of finding out if I was right. And I was! So wish fulfilment all round. What more could the middle-aged male reader ask? Well, a story that was not quite so obvious, perhaps, but there is a pleasure in knowing the outcome and then watching as skilled a writer as Robert Goddard orchestrate the moves towards that outcome.

Travel In the Old Style

Proofreading the excellent Bradt Guide to Somaliland, how about this for an insight into travel in and out of an unrecognised country:

Coming by road, a few 4x4s daily connect Djibouti and Zeila to Hargeisa [the capital of Somaliland]. These… cost around US$40 for a cabin seat, US$28 to sit in the boot, and less for a perch on the roof.

Note that the journey from Djibouti to Hargeisa takes a minimum of 12 hours, and that’s if your 4×4 doesn’t break down on the way. One traveller reported it taking him 36 hours to make the journey. That’s a long time to spend sitting in the boot!

Adventures in Bookland: Total Destruction of the Tamil Tigers by Paul Moorcroft

When writing about the many small wars that have characterised conflict, particularly since the end of the Cold War, pundits are fond of trotting out the standard line: there can be no military solution, only a political one. This is generally accepted as an a priori truth; so much so that no one argues with it. But thinking about Sri Lanka’s long civil war, I begin to wonder if it is necessarily so, and the human cost of prolonging conflicts in search of those elusive political solutions.

For if we accept the premise that there must always be a political solution, then the pattern that emerges is one of low-level warfare, interspersed with periods of truce while international intermediaries seek that solution and international aid agencies feed the people displaced by the conflict, only for the conflict to flare up once more. By leading the search for solutions, and by taking responsibility for the people the combatants are generally fighting to rule, the international community runs the risk of bleeding the conflict out – allowing the combatants time to regroup and rearm and then fight again. It’s at least possible that, left to themselves, the conflict would end more quickly, although the resolution would surely be bloody. But would more blood be shed in a short war fought to an end rather than the apparently endless rounds of conflict punctuated by periods of exhausted truce, before the whole thing starts up again? That is the question the thirty years of civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers poses. Paul Moorcroft doesn’t try to answer the question in this book: instead, he looks at how the Sri Lankan military were able to create a military solution to a war that lasted a generation, as well as the political conditions that the Rajapaksa government put into place to allow that military solution.

Yes, there can be no doubt that many civilians were killed in the final desperate months of the war, when the cornered Tigers fought like, well, tigers, for the LTTE had no compunction about using their own population as human shields. The calculation was clearly made, among the LTTE leadership, that if they could get enough pictures of dead children on the TV screens of the world, then the resulting international outcry would be sufficient to force the Sri Lankan goverment to call a halt to military action, giving them time to regroup and escape. Thus, civilian Tamil casualties were a clear strategy for the Tigers in their final struggle. Just as clearly, the Sri Lankan government and military sought to stop such images getting out: they prevented journalists getting anywhere near the battleground, with pointed references to being unable to guarantee their safety which served as veiled threats, while working behind the scenes to keep India, the one regional power that could stop everything in its tracks, on board. Moorcraft is excellent in showing how the Rajapaksa brothers maintained contacts with the Indian government, giving it daily briefings to ensure that the northern behemoth stayed on the other side of the Palk Strait. The book is also good on the overall military reorganisation that allowed the government forces to finally defeat an enemy that had defeated them for so long, although I would have liked more detail about the tactical shifts that allowed the Sri Lankan army to gain the upper hand over the LTTE cadres.

The question remains though: is this an example of a war where the only possible solution was military? For the Tigers, a political solution required the Sri Lankan government to give in completely to their demands – something that was clearly impossible. So the Tigers sought to create their own de facto state. Meanwhile, Sri Lankan governments before the Rajapaksa administration had sought for political solutions, with varying degrees of commitment, only to find that none of the proposed political solutions were possible from their point of view either. In the end, the only solution was blood. Without all the well meaning international intervention over the years, maybe that solution would have come earlier, and many lives might have been spared. Something to think on the next time someone trots out the line that there are no military solutions, only political ones.

Adventures in Bookland: Elephant Complex by John Gimlette

Elephant Complex is the best contemporary account of Sri Lanka. There, that’s short and to the point. If you have an interest in the country – and I have, since my father is Sri Lankan – then this book is required reading. It also has a secondary function, that I will concentrate on here, in detailing the sort of preparation, work and temperament that is required to make an exceptional travel writer, and John Gimlette is an exceptional travel writer. What makes him even better in this capacity is that his full-time, day job is that of London solicitor, but every so often he takes off for some far-flung part of the world and brings it back with him in exquisite prose. He even looks like a solicitor!

John Gimlette – solicitor and travel writer

He is the Wallace Stevens of travel writing.

As to the elements of being a travel writer, first there is the preparation. So far as I can tell, Gimlette has read everything that there is to read, at least in English, about Sri Lanka, from Robert Knox’s account of his 20-year captivity in the 17th century, through the accounts of Victorians such as James Emerson Tennent, through to the many competing and conflicting accounts of the long war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers. He says in his prologue that he spent two years researching Sri Lanka before visiting the country, and it shows in his writing. But his research was not confined to reading: he made contacts with many of the most significant players in contemporary Sri Lanka, interviewing them either before he went or during his three months in the country. For that is the next remarkable aspect of the book. Gimlette only spent three months there. That might sound like a long time, but having spent six weeks there myself recently, I can only marvel at how much more Gimlette managed to pack in to his schedule. Now that was no doubt helped by travelling there on his own, but what is even clearer is that, to be as accomplished a travel writer as Gimlette, the first requirement is an inexhaustible curiosity coupled with the desire to always open oneself to the country and the people among which you are travelling. Personally, I can manage that for a while, but then I become overloaded and have to withdraw behind the barricades of privilege that being a (comparatively) wealthy in a poor country allows. I simply don’t have the stamina for human interaction that Gimlette has.

So, while the idea of being paid to write about what I did on my holidays might initially appeal, during my own trip to Sri Lanka I realised that I did not have the combination of qualities required of a great travel writer. Gimlette has. Read his book.

Adventures in Bookland: The Tribute Bride by Theresa Tomlinson


One of the unanticipated pleasures of finishing The Northumbrian Thrones trilogy is the freedom that has brought in its wake to read other books set in 7th-century Northumbria. While writing Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu, I read one other novel set in that time and place, Jill Dalladay’s The Abbess of Whitby, and while I enjoyed the story, reading ‘my’ characters filtered through another writer’s perception of them produced a strange disorientation: it was like looking at a scene where everything is doubled. What was worse, that disorientation carried over for a while to my own writing. So I had to resolve to leave aside reading any other books set in 7th-century Northumbria until I had finished writing my own.

Now they’re done, I’ve been released. I’ve read, with great enjoyment, two of Matthew Harffy’s Beobrand novels (and am looking forward to reading the third as soon as time allows), with his own takes on the characters of Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu, and now I’ve finished Theresa Tomlinson’s The Tribute Bride. The heroine of the book, Acha, figures large in Oswald and Oswiu, as mother to kings, but in The Tribute Bride we see her as a girl and young woman, entering into her fateful marriage with Aethelfrith. So the vast majority of the events of the book occur before the start of Edwin, and I thoroughly enjoyed Tomlinson’s ingenious solution to the historical question of how Acha came to marry Aethelfrith and why her husband killed her father and sent her brother into exile. Because of the paucity of our sources, we can never know for sure exactly what happened in this bloody family saga, Tomlinson’s version rings with the verity of dramatic truth – if it didn’t happen like this, it should have!

So, for an engaging and engrossing journey into the deep roots of the struggle for mastery in 7th-century Northumbria, I commend this book to anyone who has enjoyed Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu.

Oswiu: What Writers Think – no.3 in a short series

James Aicheson
James Aitcheson

James Aitcheson does, supremely well, what I hope to do in my own books: employ a profound knowledge of the history of the time he is writing about to make the actions of the men and women of the time understandable to modern readers. His Sworn Sword trilogy looks at the aftermath of 1066, and how William really conquered England, while his latest book, The Harrowing, represents a huge departure from the somewhat hackneyed norms of historical fiction writing, giving a determinedly downbeat and realistic portrayal of the impact of the Conquest on ordinary people.  He’s also an excellent speaker – my boys were rapt when he spoke at the Battle of Hastings re-enactment last year and James will be there again this year. If you’re going, make sure you look out for him.

This is James with the boys:


And with me:


So I was delighted when James agreed to read Oswiu: King of Kings before publication – and even more pleased by what he thought of it. Here’s what he said:

In Oswiu, the concluding instalment in his Northumbrian Thrones trilogy, Edoardo Albert takes readers back to seventh-century England: a shadowy and turbulent era when Britons and Anglo-Saxons, heathens and Christians, contested for political and spiritual supremacy.

Albert writes with great passion; his love for this period of history shines through at every stage. His research is worn lightly, and yet his depiction of early medieval life has a strong ring of truth. In particular the post-Roman landscape of northern England, littered with roads, walls and other crumbling relics of the imperial past, is vividly described: a constant reminder that power is transitory and that even the mightiest empires must fall.

As regards the eponymous Oswiu, king of Bernicia, Albert paints a credible picture of a man struggling with the many burdens of rulership: weighed down by expectations of what a good king should be; plagued by threats to his power both at home and abroad; and overshadowed (as he has often been in history) by his celebrated elder brother and predecessor, Oswald.

Dynastic rivalries, shifting allegiances and pagan mysticism combine in this atmospheric novel, evoking a volatile world in which life is uncertain, authority and respect are hard-won, honour is all-important, and divine forces hold sway.

There. I couldn’t have asked for better. Thank you, James and remember, if you’re going to see the 950th anniversary re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings on 15 and 16 October, look for James in the book tent.