The Prince’s side


Prince Harry, Bantam, 2023, 416pps., £20
KEN BELL finds the Prince’s blockbuster book unexpectedly engaging

There can be few people in the English-speaking world who have not read a review of Spare, the memoir written by Prince Harry, and it is a pity that so many of those reviews seem to have been written by people who have not actually read the Prince’s book. A cynic might argue that the press is seeking revenge for what Prince Harry wrote about them in his book, or even that a section of the Royal Family really is out to get him. The press, certainly, come in for Harry’s ire, and if one of the motives for writing Spare was a desire to pay the press back with interest for their attacks on him, he has succeeded.

The most egregious example of dubious reviewing concerns Harry’s service in the most recent of Britain’s Afghan wars. Reviewers have told us that the Prince boasted about killing 25 enemy troops, when a simple reading of the text shows that he did no such thing. He was a helicopter weapons officer, charged with firing the missiles and guns at specific targets. Each operation had to be confirmed by men sitting in comfort far behind the lines, and afterwards the video of the action was played and replayed to make sure that the terms of engagement had been met. That was a judgement passed by men who also fought the war in comfort, far removed from what passed for the front lines in that country. What the Prince wrote in this section of his book reads like a fighting officer’s report of his engagements, rather than a former staff officer’s saloon bar boasting.

The first of the three parts which make up this volume is concerned with Harry’s childhood, the loss of his mother and his relationship with what is probably the most dysfunctional family in the world – all coupled with the most loathsome press who did seem to have it in for him. This section contains the supposed gloating at an alfresco sex bout in a field, which tuned out upon reading the book to be nothing of the sort. The whole matter is dealt with by the author in about 60 words, and is only referred to owing to an amusing mix-up between the Prince who thought that he was due to be hauled over the coals because of his sex romp, and a Buckingham Palace official who had been sent to confirm an unfounded tale that the Sun newspaper planned to run about drug taking.

Prince Harry did not manage to get the story killed, and his family declined even to try to defend him, so the evidence if fairly strong that memoir is in no small measure an act of revenge against the likes of the then editor of the Sun, who was, the Prince assures us, “an infected pustule on the arse of humanity, plus a shit excuse for a journalist.”

To be fair to the Prince, he does have good reason for his outrage. He went to a nightclub and chatted briefly to a pretty girl who turned out to be a topless model. The press got wind of this and began to run stories about how Harry was letting his family down by going out with such a girl, even though he wasn’t. His military service in Iraq was cut short because an Australian paper got hold of the details of his military deployment and he had to be quickly spirited out of the country before the enemy could mount an assault to capture or kill such a royal prize.

That said, the first section is in many ways the most moving part of the memoir and yet also the most unsatisfying. We are told so much about his childhood and how he came to terms with the death of his mother, and I defy anyone not to be moved by Prince Harry’s account of how he pretended that his mother had hidden herself away somewhere to avoid the attentions of the media and would return to him when the time was right.

Clearly, this was a boy who loved his mother, and was loved deeply by her. However, the area that may have been excised or at least toned down, concerns the author’s relationship with his father. For instance, we are told that Charles went to visit Diana soon after she had given birth to Harry and exclaimed: “Wonderful! Now you have given me and heir and a spare – my work is done.” He then strolled off “to meet his girlfriend”, which rather says it all about the man.

It is one thing for a Prince of Wales to have a harem of his own, as Prince Bertie, the heir to Queen Victoria had. When he was eventually crowned as King, a whole section of the Abbey had to be set aside for his mistresses. The man had three favourites and any number of others who came and went: he was truly a worshipper at the altar of Priapus. However, what he never did was personally humiliate his wife, Princess Alexandra of Denmark, in the way that Charles did Diana.

Both Bertie and Charlie made dynastic marriages with the aim of producing heirs and spares, but Bertie did seem to genuinely care for his wife and children. That did not stop him from bedding dozens of other women, but it did mean that the royal family was kept secure, and Queen Alexandra was contented enough with the situation to become friends with some of the senior mistresses.

Prince Charles seemed to have adopted a Mills & Boon attitude to life, with his wife cast as the villainess in the piece. This memoir could have provided Harry with a perfect opportunity to analyse his father’s incomprehensible behaviour and put it into some kind of context, but he missed that opportunity. So the mystery of why Charles could not maintain a decent front with Diana remains unresolved in this memoir. Instead, Harry contented himself by giving examples of Charles’ distant behaviour towards his sons which he unsatisfactorily summarises by saying that Charles had “always given an air of being not quite ready for parenthood… But single parenthood? Pa was never made for that.” This is thin analytical gruel, but it is the best that we get.

The third and final section of the memoir is mainly concerned with Meghan and his life with her. It is the gentlest and most hopeful section of the book, and it left this reader wishing the author well in his new life, as far away from the surrealism of his upbringing as it is possible to get.

Coster living

Beer-makers, Clapham Common, 1877. Wikimedia Commons

Street Food: Hawkers and the History of London

Charlie Taverner, Oxford University Press, 2023, 256pps, £30
KEN BELL remembers the street-traders who fed a burgeoning city

The image of London street food is a trendy one, with well-paid hipsters eating what they sweetly tell each other is authentic, usually ethnic, food that is purchased at a high price from a sleek metal catering caravan that has an expensive license to trade. However, for generations until the middle of the last century, as Charlie Taverner shows, street food was how the bulk of Londoners got their daily sustenance.

Many of them had no choice, because as London expanded, the established markets ever became further away from the new centres of population. A large number of people lived in rookeries, such as the monstrous one that existed quite near to today’s Regent Street, where they lived several to a room with little or no cooking facilities apart from, perhaps, a fireplace in the kitchen if they were lucky. So street hawkers enabled the urban poor to keep body and soul together.

Mrs. Hunt, selling at Covent Garden, 1923

The capital outlay needed to become a street hawker was very low, as a large wicker basket could be obtained for a small sum and the apples or other fruits needed to fill it being readily available at the Covent Garden market. Consider Mrs Hunt who was photographed in the 1920s with her wicker basket of apples (see above). One foreign visitor in the 1600s noted that Londoners did not eat much fruit at home, but were “always munching through the streets, like so many goats”, so we can imagine that women like Mrs Hunt were selling soft fruit to theatre audiences in Shakespeare’s day. Fast forward a few decades to the Restoration, and the legend of Nell Gwyn and her oranges is well-known even today.

Pretty much anything edible was sold on the street, with herring, shellfish and eels becoming as ubiquitous as the fruits. Milk was sold by milkmaids who purchased their supplies from the owners of herds of cows that were kept in London. In the days before milk was pasteurised or sterilised, an army of maids selling the fresh variety ensured that the supplies reached the consumers in a reasonable condition.

A step up in terms of capital outlay from the baskets was the wheelbarrow, which meant that more produce could be carried and sold, including hot food, and by the Victorian age, hawkers were selling hot pies and potatoes from an oven atop a wheelbarrow. Hawkers of hot coffee also used them with a brazier of hot coals, although quite why coffee was preferred by the street sellers and their customers to tea is anyone’s guess.

Finally, we have the hawkers who either owned or rented a cart which they pushed by hand or had pulled by a donkey. These were the famous London costermongers and although Taverner accepts them as a caste apart, he really does not give them credit for just how far apart they were even from the bulk of the street hawkers. A costermonger was noted for his dress, which was invariably topped off with a large handkerchief worn around his neck called a Kingsman. A costergirl would take one of her man’s handkerchiefs and wear it draped across her shoulders for probably the same reason that a girl today enjoys helping herself to one of her boyfriend’s shirts. Costers spoke a cant tongue to each other and were largely illiterate, mathematical geniuses. They could work out how much profit was to be made for a given wholesale price in their heads and then set to work in family groups to earn it.

They had to operate in a family unit as the work was labour-intensive. Children would be put to work intermixing live eels with dead ones in the hope that the customers did not notice and others would boil fading oranges to give them the illusion of vitality. When times were bad, costergirls were not adverse to a spot of whoring, usually with their boyfriends doubling as pimps and protectors. Much of this street colour is missing from Taverner’s work, which I think is a pity, but it probably owes a lot to the fact that it was first written as a university thesis.

That said, Street Food is an excellent overview of the earnings of street hawkers and a discussion of the casual nature of the work, with some hawkers shifting from street hustling on their own accounts to working for employers when such work became available. One such man who sold whelks is quoted as bemoaning that “seafood don’t pay more than a poor living,” so when times were really bad, “he left his wife with the barrow and took odd jobs such as beating carpets and cleaning windows”.

This casual economy reminds today’s reader of London’s latest innovation – the gig economy, with the delivery riders taking the place of the street hawkers of old. If we add to them the army of men who push the unlicensed hot dog carts around the West End of London, chased by the council jobsworths in much the same way as the costermongers were harried by officialdom in their day, a good case can be made for saying that everything has changed and much has remained the same.

Verses for a vanished town

Ravenser Odd

Michael Daniels, Poets House Pamphlets, 2022, 26 pps, £7
LIAM GUILAR admires an evocation of the eroding East Riding

This is Michael Daniels’ first collection – the traditional slim pamphlet.  The publisher, Poets House Pamphlets, of Oxford, has produced a fine object, printed on good paper, with understated, subtle artwork to enhance the text.

The story of Ravenser Odd deserves a poem. It was a settlement which lasted less than two hundred years at the mouth of the Humber on Britain’s eastern coast. A sand or gravel bank was created by storms at the mouth of the estuary in the early 13th century. By the 1230s, there is documentary evidence of people living and trading there and it was granted a royal charter in 1299. It became a very prosperous sandbank. At one point there was a chapel, warehouses, a jail and a windmill. There was a weekly market and two fairs a year. The town sent two MPs to Parliament.

The town suffered from a growing number of floods from the 1320s onwards, and the wealthier families began to move themselves and their money out. By the winter of 1356-57, Ravenser Odd had been abandoned. Then the land on which the town had stood was swept away in a final tempest in 1362. The storm, which inundated land on both sides of the North Sea, was so bad the Dutch gave it a name: the Grote Mandrenke[i].

It’s the stuff of folk tales, made better by the fact it’s true. An internet search reveals its continuing fascination. “Yorkshire’s ‘lost Atlantis nearly found’ after 650 years under water” reads one strange headline from 2022[ii]. As a story it can obviously be read in different ways: the contemporary enemies of the settlement might have seen its destruction as divine retribution. Today, it’s easy to see it as a symbol of nature’s indifference to human concerns, or a warning for those living along the same coast which in some places is being eroded at 30ft a year[iii].  Rather than pushing an interpretation, Daniels lets the story speak for itself.

The booklet is a sequence of linked poems that move chronologically through the history of the settlement. They are all written in terza rima. A note tells the reader this was chosen because “Dante’s development of terza rima was contemporaneous with Ravenser Odd’s highpoint”. If this seems an odd reason to choose a form, anyone who voluntarily writes in terza rima must be admired for making his own life difficult. The success of Daniels’ attempt is evident in the way the rhymes don’t intrude. The poems move smoothly, and there’s no sense that a rhyme has been forced or the lines padded to fit the form. The verse is spare, in keeping with the feel of medieval chronicle or folk tale.

From the start, the sequence announces that the specifics of the settlement’s history are also being used to contemplate the claims the dead have on the living. It begins:

What is it to be held in mind
by someone else, to dwell as ghost
or presence there? The drowned recline

in chambered mud, yet still we host
them in our heads, subdued and dim.
It isn’t us who need them most.

The link to The Divine Comedy inevitably evokes Dante’s concern with the dead, but it also illustrates an important difference. Dante’s dead are individuals with names and histories; Daniels are the nameless dead who remain undistinguished. “The dead know things we’ve never learned- / how hard it is to stay alive”.

The gardens they had tended went.

The cabbage rows were heaved and sloughed

as if the aching care they spent

to sow and plant was not enough,

as if the tilled and tidied beds

were cheap as salt and air. The rough

sea came and went all spring […]

Playing on the name, Ravenser Odd produces Odin’s ravens; thought and memory, who provide a bird’s eye perspective. They also appear as tiny pictures at the start of each poem.

The bird’s eye perspective means the poem deals with people, not individuals – the dead, not specific corpses. There is an unnamed feudal Lord; “…life was his to make the worse, / he was their breath, their bread, their meat”. Like most modern depictions of feudal lords, this one’s a sadist, but the strength of the writing means it’s unclear whether his story, and the story of the fishing vessel The Silver Pit which follows it, are retellings of chronicle events, or inventions of the poet.

The sea is the individuated character in the poem, and its restless power runs through the collection. When the end comes it ignores

such mortal dreams, but saved its breath

to asset strip the sinking town

of shattered timber, nail and lath-

The two ravens see the final calamity:

The people’s final prayer rose up,

petitioning their lonely god.

The ravens read their trembled lips

to scavenge scraps of uttered word,

then spat them back as raucous noise,

disemvowelling all they heard.

The pun in that last line is impressive, standing out in a collection where the diction is mostly conversational. The ruined voices of the dying and the dead are reduced to sounds the poet has been trying to hear, but which having been converted to noise, are lost. Even the final devastation of the land on which the town stood is a minor incident in a much larger tragedy. There is no conclusion, and if there is a moral to be drawn from the story Daniels thankfully leaves it up to the reader.

This is a small, impressive collection. The poet’s website ( contains files of him reading his work, with evocative visual images to accompany the readings.

[i] The death toll is placed around 25,000.


[iii] ‘The Holderness coast, on which Spurn Point sits, is Europe’s most rapidly eroding coastline, with some areas disappearing by more than 30ft per year.’  

Passport to rebirth

STUART MILLSON says a Scottish National Party idea suggests a way to preserve the Union

The resignation of the SNP First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon – welcomed by relieved unionists, lamented by Scottish secessionists (some in tears during interviews on television news) – has brought the relationship between the countries of the United Kingdom again into the centre of political debate. 

Following the recent Supreme Court ruling that Holyrood did not have the right to initiate a second referendum on independence, an SNP conference scheduled for March has been cancelled. Nicola Sturgeon, standard-bearer of the paradoxical cause of an independent nation within the EU, who just six months ago proclaimed that “we are the independence generation”, has now effectively signalled the end of that euphoric period for Scottish nationalism.

Today, Scottish secessionists are pondering, not the arrangements for a forthcoming re-run of the 2014 vote (a result they have spent the greater part of the last nine years denying) but the question of who can possibly fill the vacancy created by Nicola Sturgeon’s departure. This is quite a change from the SNP’s triumphalism and optimism of 2022, when Holyrood’s civil servants were producing public briefing papers on ‘life outside the UK’ – even exhibiting artwork for a new Scottish passport, with accompanying plans for Scottish embassies to open around the world. However, in their zeal to create a distinctive Scottish identity, maybe the SNP has inadvertently stumbled upon the very ideas that could re-equip the Union with the tools and ideals necessary for its rebirth.

Would not a redesigned UK passport, bearing stirring emblems of the heraldry and history of all the Kingdom’s constituent nations, help assuage regional tensions? Couldn’t portraits of, say, Robert the Bruce or Rabbie Burns, not reassure understandably proud Scots that their country had not disappeared in 1707? Likewise, the establishment of Scottish embassies may not be too fanciful an idea: Montreal’s flag flies from grand offices in London’s Pall Mall, just a short stroll from Canada House – recognition that a French nation exists alongside the English-speaking land of the Maple Leaf.

West of the River Severn, no calls have yet been made for specifically Welsh embassies, but the issuing of UK-Welsh banknotes – say, Owain Glyndwr charging across a mountainous scene on £20 denominations – could help three million people in this corner of the realm to see that their nation’s life did not end with the incursions of mediaeval English armies. Welshmen and women can take justifiable pride in their part in shaping the United Kingdom: the Tudor dynasty originating in Cambria, David Lloyd George leading us to victory in the First World War, and the summit of the world, Mount Everest, bearing the name of a man born in Powys.

In Northern Ireland, too, couldn’t a new provincial flag – the shamrock, harp and the Crown, perhaps, maybe even images of moderate Home Rulers and patriot idealists of the past (for example, John Redmond, or W B Yeats) – help to heal rifts and, more importantly, encourage Irish nationalists to see that they can have an honoured place in the UK? 

Celts can, at least, take pleasure in the fact that so much effort is being directed to their well-being: the descendants of the Anglo-Saxons, it should be remembered, are the one group who, in this kaleidoscope of devolution, do not have their own assembly. The English are very forbearing about this democratic deficit; a further willingness to allow our fellow-Britons with whom we have such inextricably linked histories to celebrate their ancient achievements and national heroes alongside ours would be a characteristically generous gesture. It could also be a long-sighted one – and a catalyst for a troubled Kingdom’s rebirth.

The passing of traditions

Photo: Ben Kirby. Courtesy of Pexels

Whatever Happened To Tradition?

History, Belonging and the Future of the West

Tim Stanley, Bloomsbury Continuum, October 2021, 272 pages, £20

KEN BELL finds that banished traditions can come back in new ways

The central theme of Tim Stanley’s Whatever Happened to Tradition is that tradition in the West has been demolished by its great enemies of liberalism and enlightenment. That is not to say that enlightened men cannot also be conservative and traditionalist – and Stanley doesn’t claim that – rather that liberal, enlightened values are so dominant that they have taken over for the present their conservative opponents. Thus, writes Stanley, “Conservatives, most already economically liberal, have become more socially liberal; the left, most already socially liberal have become more economically liberal.”

So what we have in the West is not a debate between liberals and conservatives, but rather a managerial dispute as to which faction can increase the size of the state to better meet the demands of the populace. This is made worse by the fact that the elites “keep cocking things up,” which they do time and time again as we may be reminded in the winter of 2023 when we undergo power cuts.

Time was when the growing and increasingly authoritarian state would have been opposed by Tories who drew their inspiration from the ideals of the ‘freeborn Englishman’, with his pot of beer and his plate of roast beef. However, today’s Tories are just as much opposed to those notions of responsible individualism in an ordered society as any liberal New-Labourite. One can make a good, Tory position out of support for the miners during the Great Strike of 1984/85. Stanley reminds us that the miners were men who were not fighting to overthrow the established order. Instead what they wanted was to defend their position within that order; a position that involved decent pay and conditions backed up by a strong union. An old-style Conservative could hardly argue against the mines on the basis of economics, especially when the foundations of his beliefs are the monarchy, the Anglican Church, and the legitimacy of the established order. Few of those will bear close scrutiny from an accountant with a balance sheet.

Yet, the Tories are a pragmatic bunch as evidenced by their wholehearted acceptance of what used to be called the Gay Liberation Movement. When I was a young man, the homosexualists allied themselves with the broader Labour movement. We tolerated their predilections, and they took on board our view of how the economy should be run. It was the perfect alliance, with both sides getting something out of the deal. But by the end of the last century, the radical gay pride events had run their course and were attracting fewer and fewer supporters each year. This was especially true in London where the Pride Festival organisers found themselves at the door to the poorhouse. Corporate capitalism came to the rescue and transformed “a protest into a party endorsed by Tesco and Lloyds Bank… nowadays there are probably more middle-class heterosexuals at Pride than gays or lesbians.” Given that the Tories were only recently the party that introduced legislation that banned the promotion of homosexuality in schools, their transformation is a sight to behold.

It is also a very traditional Tory path to take. The party’s aim is the maintenance of the socio-economic status quo: everything else is just tactics. So, the Tories can ditch the anti-homosexualism and a few voters amongst the lower-middle-class in places like Nuneaton, and become pro-homosexual and get votes in Putney. Furthermore, a liberal line on gays does not cost money, unlike, say, levelling-up.

Tim Stanley does give traditionalists some glimmers of hope for a radical future, one coming from a very unexpected quarter. Fox hunting was a pastime of the old established order and was on its deathbed until New Labour gave it a boost by banning it. Hunts began to set their hounds to chase scents laid on the ground, which sounds rather desperate at first glance. However, the hunts became a focus of rural opposition to everything that rural people felt was wrong with the society at large. So thousands began to turn out to support their local hunt, with numbers increasing as urban people decided to go and support this traditional event.

The end result was the metamorphosis of the hunt from a minority interest to a mass event with an overtly political character. Hunt masters became the staunchest of Brexiteers and often provided the leadership for the Brexit campaign in their areas. Tim Stanley is surely correct when he speculates that all traditional values need is a little bit of state repression to give them a new lease on life.

A journey into Britain’s recent past

Image: Clem Onojeghuo. Courtesy of Pexels

About Britain: A Journey of Seventy Years and 1,345 Miles

Tim Cole, Bloomsbury Continuum, June 2021, 384 pages, £18.99

KEN BELL drives down a northwestern Memory Lane

The Festival of Britain in 1951 was intended to show that the war was over and Great Britain was back on her feet. As an ancillary to the Festival, a series of motorists’ guidebooks were written which covered all the regions of Britain. Each one of the thirteen guides contained several motoring tours that allowed the visitor to explore the country’s highways, gave advice on where to stop for food and drink, and contained plenty of photographs to keep the non-motoring public happy. Tim Cole, Professor of History at the University of Bristol, collected these guides and decided to follow a dozen of the routes. The book he wrote is a lyrical, yet sadly depressing, account of British decline since 1951.

It is interesting that none of the journeys include much information about the great cities that often start and end a journey. Newcastle is dealt with in a sentence or two about the football ground and the barracks, with the road out of the city being one of ‘unimaginative industrialism’, according to the 1950 author. It is unlikely that any modern guides would so dismiss the cities, but in 1951 the bourgeois motorist probably only saw them as starting points on his journey into the real land that was rural to his mind.

The chapter dealing with the Northwest interested me the most, mainly because as a Mancunian I am from that region. The original guide took the visitor through Preston and the mill towns, and was obviously intended to show Britain’s industrial might as well as offering nice views and decent eating houses. Some of those roadside hostelries are still in operation, by the way, but now they offer Indian and Italian foods rather than the meat and two veg of 1950. Preston in 1951 was a major port for the export of cotton and the mill towns of Accrington, Blackburn, Burnley and Nelson form a string of towns on the guide that the visitor would have driven though on his way to the Pennines and the wool towns beyond.

This is where the depression sinks in, as the Preston docks closed not long after the guide was written, just as Accrington and Blackburn lost their role of makers of cheap, thin cloth for the peasants of India and Africa to wear. Burnley no longer made ‘narrow cloths for printing’ and Nelson ceased to make patterned fabrics.

As Tim Cole points out, the 1950 author really did believe that the wartime boom would remain, and he then goes on to trace the sad decline from that optimistic year. He looks at the increasingly desperate attempts to introduce manmade fibres into the Lancashire spinning process, often using fibres that had been invented in Britain. Those new processes did not need an army of skilled or even semi-skilled workers: what they needed were a few unskilled machine minders, but even so, tariffs and competition from abroad quickly rendered the mill towns uneconomic. Each mill town brought over cheap labour from Pakistan to reduce the wage bill as a final throw of the dice, and when that failed, one by one the companies that had brought them to Lancashire shut up shop and left the towns to sink.

Tim Cole takes the reader out of Burnley, along the road to Colne, via Nelson and then up to the Pennine Hills and on into Yorkshire and the relics of its woollen past. I have made that journey myself many times and Cole’s sympathetic portrayal of the region shines through. Sadly, it is a journey from prosperity to aching poverty in a few short miles that took seven decades to complete.

Dispatches from 1643

The following is an extract from Book II of William G Carpenter’s epic poem about the English Civil Wars.

The poet is Philip Meadowe, assistant to John Milton in his role as Foreign Language Secretary for the Council of State under the Protectorate.  Meadowe reads his lines to Milton at Milton’s house in Petty France, Westminster. 

1643: a tough year for the Parliamentarian armies, with defeats in every quarter of England, and ever and always short of money and provisions.  Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex (herein “Dev-Ex”), Captain-General of the Parliamentary Army, is Meadowe’s protagonist in the early sections; this excerpt presents the successful conclusion of Dev-Ex’ siege of Reading in April 1643.

An excerpt from Book I, The Sword of Gideon, may be found at Expansive Poetry Online Spring 2022 ( 

WILLIAM G. CARPENTER is the author of Eþandun (Beavers Pond Press,2020), which depicts King Alfred’s struggle with the pagan Danes in 878 AD.  Available from Amazon, Itasca Books Distribution and

The Loss of the West

Dev-Ex’ men were dying by the score: 

“to death, by troops, the soldiers went,” says Chapman,

men spotted, burning, writhing, raving, bruised,

the life of men ebbing in stinking rills,

yet Dev-Ex knew no crime against Apollo,

no priest’s daughter seized, no ritual stinted,

that merited infernal punishment

of his half-frozen, always hungry men –

unless, as seemed unlikely, He preferred

east-facing altars and communion rails

and a Book of Common Prayer for the godly Scots –

unless He favored base servility

towards every courtier that caught Charles’ ear,

including Laud, Charles’ encroacher-in-chief. 

Or was it our indifference to His Word,

maiming and murdering maugre Majesty? 

Rupert had stormed Birmingham on Good Friday,

then, on the very feast of the Resurrection,

Sir William Waller occupied Welsh Chepstow –

perhaps no insult to the Prince of Peace

unless pursued without humility,

which was, Dev-Ex conjectured, Waller’s way. 

Our guns knocked down the tower of St. Giles,

but only when the Rs set a cannon on it. 

As to maimed rites, Parliament starved his army,

though willing enough to grant him compensation

for R despoilment of his lands in Staffs

out of the lands of Arthur Capel, Charles’s

lord-lieutenant of Salop, Chesh, and North Wales –

who loyally had bought a barony

when Charles, hungry for money, slashed the fee. 

(A bargain at three hundred fifty pounds;

Sir Richard Newport later paid six thousand.) 

The “generals” in the Houses, knowing famine

and filthiness would breed disease in soldiers

who could afford nor daily bread nor clothing

whenever their promised daily eight pence failed,

nevertheless dared not incur the blame

of taxing men enough to fund the war –

pretending to themselves that Charles’s false

and dilatory treaty for a peace

would obviate the need to pay the army. 

Wherefore the Houses tottered along on loans,

first voluntary, then by threat of law,

and now sought to shift the hugeous cost

of war onto the Rs by sequestrations,

a measure certain to inflame their hatred. 

Only Pym, the true, the brave, foresaw

the Ps must needs dig deeper for the Cause

and dared to introduce an excise bill,

which naturally would kindle popular ire. 

As Dev-Ex lay in Daniel Blagrave’s bed,

his mind floating up through depths of sleep,

Sir John Meyrick breathing next to him

in darkness, with Sir John’s siege-guns rumbling

all day, all night, now going on nine days,

from west, north, east, and south of the worn town,

the birds a-chattering in the intervals,

he knew the siege of Reading verged on failure. 

Most of his regiments were undermanned,

primarily from this devilish camp fever

that wantoned through his army’s camps and billets. 

Provisions, powder, shot grew ever scarcer. 

And today, Charles’ host would arrive in force. 

At least the dead and dying could be shipped

down the Thames, which the Ps controlled downstream. 

An army is a perishable thing: 

maybe he ought to have rolled the dice at Oxford,

leaving Aston’s garrison in his rear. 

War was martyrdom, whoever triumphed. 

Pudsley dressed him.  Dev-Ex breakfasted

with Carey-Rochford, Robartes, Grey, and Hampden,

Constable, Goodwin, Skippon, and Du Boys. 

Meyrick, of course.  Cold capon, bread, and wine. 

They then progressed from Blagrave’s house in Southcote

to Caversham, where they met with Colonels Holborne,

Barclay, Meldrum, and Middleton, who’d slept

close to their regiments across the Thames. 

Dev-Ex had brought his secretary, Baldwin. 

Dawn lightened the rainy air.  No sun shone,

though fresh buds glowed on the tips of branches. 

“This Council of War shall now come to order.” 

Thus President Meyrick.  A dim chill tavern. 

“To recapitulate,” Dev-Ex began,

“why we’re here instead of Charles’s capital: 

leaving Aston’s regiments in our rear,

seven of foot and several troops of horse,

whilst charging Charles’s ring of garrisons –

not wise.  Whilst our more greener regiments

further dissuaded us from undertaking

the more hazardous task.  For which cause, too,

we thus far have elected not to storm

the governor’s forbidding palisadoes. 

Also our bargemen crave this reach of Thames. 

To boot, this matter weighed as much as any,

the welfare of the godly Reading people

groaning under Sir Arthur’s popish cruelty,

beaten, robbed, enslaved – their homes their prison. 

Rupert’s troopers roar like a sudden squall,

but Aston’s swarming plunderers have settled

like locusts on the folk, consuming them. 

“We’ve held off from mortaring their houses

and burning the unhappy town to the ground. 

Our guns play on their works, not on their churches. 

And so we find ourselves:  the walls unbreached,

their garrison intact, and our men scourged

by fever – with Charles and Rupert and young Maurice

and ten or twelve regiments, horse and foot,

arriving from Wallingford at any hour. 

In which light, the sole course, best to preserve

what yet survives of our afflicted force –

you know not how it gnaws at me to say it –

the only certain means to preserve our army,

is penitently to march back to Windsor,

relinquishing this siege for better days.” 

They sat in silence, stunned.  Constable bridled: 

“My lord, you mock our faith and fortitude. 

Think of the vast mercy shown at Kineton

and other fields too numerous to name. 

Crawling back to Windsor, where our men

had starved, but for killing of Charles’s deer –

with Charles and Rupert snapping at our flanks –

it behooves us, rather, to quick-march to Oxford

and storm it, having lured the popish wolf,

the wolf and the wolf’s cubs, from their popish den.” 

Du Boys added, not to be thought timid,

in his tongue-tied Netherlandish accent,

“When we have Oxford, they must sue for peace.” 

Meyrick had replaced him on the ordnance. 

The president studied faces, but said nothing –

betraying no dismay or disagreement,

unclear whether he was for or against retreat,

as Dev-Ex’ oldest, closest comrade present. 

Anticipating, Skippon answered thus: 

“Respected sirs, our horse may reach the town,

but our lame foot would quickly be devoured

by Cavaliers raging along Thames-side. 

And it will take some days to ship our sick

downriver, lest Sir Arthur murder them.” 

The small coal fire began to warm the room,

“divine tobacco” (Spenser) scenting the air. 

Said Hampden with a smile:  “My lord but tempts us. 

Not so, Lord General?  You would try our courage? 

The mercies Colonel Constable refers to,

they follow us today.  My Lord Grey (nodding)

has swelled our host.  Our trenches indefeasibly

advance on Aston’s works.  This man Flower –

we’ve now cut off Charles’ traffic with his people.” 

“A malignant messenger,” commented Meyrick. 

“A drummer of ours fished him out of the river.” 

Goodwin spoke up eagerly, “And look

at the feats of our fierce Caledonian friends,

Barclay and Holborne foiling the Earl of Forth;

Meldrum and Middleton, at Dorchester,

routing Charles’ life guard and snatching a cornet.” 

Dev-Ex exhaled a puff of smoke, content

to hear his councillors debate the motion. 

An old Parliament man, the General knew

that deference must be pricked to foster counsel. 

Grey added that the Eastern Association,

having assumed the risk and the expense

of sending several regiments abroad

(minus the Norfolk troop that mutinied

rather than fight for foreign counties’ safety)

with Cavendishes criss-crossing their northern borders,

if the Houses’ host rearward marched to Windsor

never again would join in such campaigns. 

The Parliament itself might reconsider

commissions should this mountain sire a mouse. 

The colonels knew that Lord Grey’s eastern levies

were the worst-equipped, -disciplined, and -paid

of any mustered for the present siege. 

They studiously refrained from knowing glances. 

Dev-Ex nodded.  Grey could contribute nothing. 

“I see that none here favors our withdrawal,”

said Dev-Ex, releasing peaceable smoke,

“which therefore, for lack of a second, dies. 

Yet such would not impair our army’s principal

purpose, which of course is guarding London. 

Nor do all favor a sudden lunge at Oxford. 

And so, a bear at stake, we abide Charles’ dogs. 

War is martyrdom, whoever triumphs.” 

They sat a moment, till Dev-Ex suggested

the Council briefly adjourn to Caversham Hill,

whence they might gain celestial instruction

as to their dispositions for the day. 

With Meyrick leading, following the thunder

that broke at intervals from the thick cloud

and smoke that hid the battery up the hill,

recalling Sinai to those godly captains,

they left behind the houses of the village

and left their horses at the barricade

that guarded Aston’s knowledgeable works. 

They found themselves exposed to wind and rain,

and earthquake when the greater pieces roared,

then huddled in the lee of a makeshift shed

erected on the south perimeter

to guard the match and powder from foul weather. 

Stepping into the wind, the General peered

across the river towards the battered town,

once prosperous, once occupied by Danes

as hostile as Sir Arthur Aston’s Rs. 

He scarcely could discern its walls and ditches

through the slanting rain and low blowing clouds. 

Nor could he find his other batteries,

whose smoke the rain and gale bore away. 

Beckoning, he led the shivering colonels

across the hill’s crown to its northmost fence. 

From there they could make out their furthest outworks,

but beyond those, nothing.  Where was Charles? 

He scanned the plain with his perspective trunk,

then absently passed the device to Meyrick. 

He eyed the dripping faces of his fellows. 

“Here we are,” said Dev-Ex.  “At the stake. 

Four good if weary regiments we have

facing Charles’ most probable approach. 

Can four withstand his ten?  And what if Rupert

swoops in from west or south, and Aston sallies,

an anvil to the German prince’s hammer? 

The Houses’ army could be smashed to bits,

the London road left practically unguarded,

and us to face whatever punishments

befall men who squander the Lord God’s host.” 

A wet gust licked Dev-Ex’s fringe from his brow. 

Meyrick ushered the Council back to the shed,

where Dev-Ex dabbed his eyes.  Continuing: 

“Yet I concur, I must, with your advice,

Lord Grey, that to scurry back to Windsor

would be at least as costly to our Cause,

worse than defeat, in weakening the spirit

of those who do, and those who might, support us.” 

Unwilling to infect them with his dread,

and wishing, further, to lift up their hearts

despite the wind and rain, despite their prospects,

Dev-Ex glanced from face to face.  How he missed

Greville – his faith, his quiet joy in those he loved,

his portion of Our Savior’s kindliness,

his lucency in speech, his unrestrained

audacity in countering the foe. 

At least he still had Meyrick, Hampden, Robartes –

unlike Achilles, who went mad with grief

when his Patroclus fell to Hector’s spear. 

He caught the expectant glint in Hampden’s eye,

Hampden’s lips as if prompting his next words: 

“Let us rejoice, dear friends,” concluded Dev-Ex,

“in how Our Lord has favored this our leaguer. 

His mercies you know well, and his afflictions. 

It is our privilege to fight His battles.” 

Still Hampden looked at him expectantly. 

“Meyrick,” Dev-Ex said.  “Turn these great guns

to north-northwest.  Charles will be here soon.” 

Hampden, yet again, now Goodwin too. 

His two MPs, with Constable a third. 

Meyrick was a fourth, but “grappled to him

with hoops of steel and worn at his heart’s core.” 

“Robartes,” Dev-Ex added, to the baron,

“your foot, men know, stood firm at Kineton. 

Go quickly, now, and march them over the bridge. 

Meldrum will dispose them in his lines. 

We’ll meet Charles with five regiments at Caversham.” 

Robartes paled, pursed his lips, and nodded,

the slow action more a submissive bow. 

“Questions?  Meyrick, you may adjourn the Council.” 

They silently recrossed the battery,

the south wind spitting rudely in their faces. 

Dev-Ex felt as though his mask had cracked,

allowing chill tears for the coming slaughter

to drench his shaven cheeks in rivulets. 

The slender works he’d raised against his dread

gave way, and fear suddenly swarmed his trenches. 

“Dear Lord.  Dear Lord,” he muttered to himself. 

“Only you.  Only you, my Lord.  My God.” 

And the Lord God of Hosts heard his appeal. 

He stopped and looked across the river, where

the drifting cloud concealed and revealed Reading. 

A whitish thing appeared and disappeared,

wavering on the corner of the wall,

the northwest corner, facing Caversham Bridge. 

He looked, and the others followed his gaze,

as the white cloud opened and closed the vision. 

He took back his perspective-trunk from Meyrick. 

It was.  Yes.  A white flag of parley. 

“Praise God,” said Dev-Ex.  “Aston wants to talk.” 

But Aston did not want to talk.  Bedridden,

speechless from an injury to the head

inflicted by a falling chimney tile,

thanks to Meyrick’s diligent cannoneering,

Sir Arthur had laid down his tyranny. 

Command devolved on Colonel Richard Feilding,

a kinsman of William Feilding, Earl of Denbigh,

an R, and of P Colonel Basil Feilding. 

Dev-Ex hurried back across the river

and sent a trumpeter with Carey-Rochford,

whose father, Dover, served in Charles’s horse guards,

to make a truce, if offered, and give terms,

God willing, for surrender of the town. 

The Rs sent Colonel Bolle and LC Thelwell

and Sergeant-Major Gilby out to treat,

while Carey-Rochford stayed behind, a hostage,

joined by LC Russell and SM King. 

Meyrick’s guns fell silent, as did Feilding’s. 

When Dev-Ex summoned Aston, he’d refused

to let him march away with all his men. 

“I came not,” Dev-Ex said, “for the town only,

but for the men” – the whole three thousand of them,

a formidable access of strength for Oxford. 

But now, with Charles and Rupert on his doorstep,

his regiments consuming with the fever,

Dev-Ex willingly approved that trade

(excepting renegadoes from his army),

but capped removal of R guns and plunder. 

“Do we lack faith?” asked Hampden, privately,

once the trumpeter was on his way. 

They stood a few steps off from Dev-Ex’ tent,

where the R envoys sat.  The rain had paused. 

“Where is the sword of Gideon and the Lord?” 

Hampden continued.  “We outnumber Charles. 

Relief from Oxford was expected, which

is why we came with such a populous host.” 

“I’ll bear whatever blame accrues,” said Dev-Ex,

“without undue concern for martial glory. 

We cannot risk leaving London naked. 

Better a living dog, than a dead lion. 

Their ‘full honors of war’ will cost us nothing.” 

A distant cannon fired, well beyond Caversham. 

Charles was coming.  They went inside the tent,

Dev-Ex quietly ordering the guards

to keep the Rs from running back to Reading. 

“We’re under a truce,” he said to Colonel Bolle. 

The rain resumed.  Cannon- and musket-fire. 

The Rs were agitated, caught between

their truce and their obedience to Charles. 

A messenger from Colonel Meldrum came: 

Barclay’s and Robartes’ men were holding firm

against the whole brunt of Charles’ attack. 

Hampden left the tent to order dinner

and fetch a few more guards to watch the Rs. 

Colonel Bolle hailed from Louth in Lincolnshire,

but his foot regiment was raised in Staffs. 

Dev-Ex, the latter county’s lord-lieutenant,

knew Bolle’s officers and knew their families. 

Gilby, a papist, served under papist Belasyse. 

They dined.  There was no sally out of Reading,

which, Dev-Ex said, was good news for their treaty. 

Good news, he meant, for the R negotiators,

now Dev-Ex’ hostages in all but name. 

He ordered Hampden to the nearest battery,

with orders to let fly with one great gun

to mind Colonel Feilding of his position. 

The cannonfire dwindled and fell silent. 

Feilding asked for leave to seek Charles’ blessing

on the terms he and Dev-Ex had agreed. 

A messenger was sent and Charles was found

encamped amid his host near Wallingford. 

He seemed to give assent to Dev-Ex’ terms,

whereupon Colonel John Belasyse MP,

Lieutenant Colonel Edward Villiers, Bolle,

Gilby, Thelwell, and George Bond joined Feilding

and cosigned the articles of surrender. 

The following morning, Aston’s garrison

(including Henry Mordaunt in disguise,

soon to inherit his poor father’s earldom)

marched from Reading out Grey Friar’s gate,

led by Sir Arthur on his horse-drawn litter,

drums rattling, colors hanging, trumpets bleating,

the foot with ball in mouth and smoking match,

with four pieces of ordnance in their train

and fifty wagonloads of bag and baggage.  

The enigmas of Erskine Childers

Image: Gary Woods
CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD remembers a gifted novelist and nationalist contrarian

The era either side of the First World War was a golden age for the spy novel. Perhaps there’s nothing like a really cataclysmic global shock to get the creative juices flowing. In July 1914, Arthur Conan Doyle put Sherlock Holmes aside long enough to publish a story with the unambiguous title of ‘Danger!’, a cautionary tale of the British Isles being starved into submission by an enemy submarine blockade – and in at least some accounts one that proved spectacularly counter-productive, in that it spurred the Kaiser and his naval chiefs to do exactly what Doyle had warned of. The following year, John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps mixed jingoism and Germanophobia in a topical yarn involving a sinister anarchist gang, a man with part of his finger missing, and an extended chase scene through the Scottish highlands.  Somerset Maugham went one further and actually became a wartime spy, an experience he later put to good use in his celebrated Ashenden series.

But perhaps the pick of the literary crop was 1903’s The Riddle of the Sands, by the Anglo-Irish writer, soldier, politician and latterly radical nationalist Erskine Childers. It had the lot. If some destructive process were to mysteriously eliminate the world’s entire spy-thriller library, only The Riddle remaining, we could surely reconstruct from it every outline of the basic formula, every essential character and flavour contributing to the genre. In essence, the novel mixes some gentle satire about the graded snobberies of the Edwardian class system (at least a generation ahead of its time in that respect alone) with a lively seafaring adventure involving a couple of topping British chaps going after German spies in the Baltic. It’s not only a riveting tale in itself, but so cogent in its account of the decrepit state of Britain’s maritime defenses that it prompted the Admiralty to hurriedly install a series of new coastal gun batteries, and The Times to call the author ‘a hero’ as a result; an ironic and perhaps poignant tribute in the light of what ultimately happened. Childers’s book was an instant bestseller, and still ticks over today. No less a judge than Ken Follett has called it ‘the first modern thriller.’ If you want a really gripping read, with plenty of white-knuckle action, some energetically sustained period idiom, and the sort of mass of technical description and verifiable detail later found in the James Bond series, The Riddle is for you.

Jenny Agutter in the 1979 film of The Riddle of the Sands

Curiously enough, about the one person seemingly unmoved by the book’s success was Childers himself, something of an odd bird, by all accounts, even by literary standards. Aged 33 at the time of The Riddle’s publication, he never wrote another novel, instead concentrating on dry military manuals and increasingly strident political tracts. To call Childers a man of humanising contradictions is an understatement. On the one hand, he served the Crown as a wartime intelligence and aerial reconnaissance officer, greatly distinguishing himself in the 1915 Gallipoli campaign. On the other, he was busy on the side smuggling German-bought guns to supply the Home Rule nationalists in Ireland, running the weapons onto a moonlit beach north of Dublin on his racing yacht Asgard, accompanied by his wife Molly and a small crew. It was almost like a scene out of The Riddle, with the critical distinction that instead of sounding the alarm about German ambitions, Childers was in the curious position of serving the King while transporting arms from the Kaiser intended for a revolution behind the lines.

The 1916 Easter Rising that saw the deaths of 485 men, women and children, among them a number of swiftly enacted judicial executions, in a week of rioting around Dublin seems to have finally clarified any remaining questions of allegiance in Childers’s mind. ‘I am daily witness to the prostitution of the British Army I served to fulfill the many aims I loathed and combated,’ he wrote. ‘I am Anglo-Irish by birth. Now I am identifying myself wholly with Ireland.’

Having cemented his establishment credentials by winning the Distinguished Service Cross for his work at Gallipoli, Childers settled down to live as a sort of proto-hippy on a farm in County Wicklow, extolling the virtues of vegetarianism, enjoying an occasional toot of cocaine and, it’s said, a degree of freedom from the traditional monogamous ideal, while sending his three young sons to a progressive school where they would be taught nothing about religion until they were old enough to decide for themselves.

The war over, Childers was a victim of the worldwide Spanish Flu pandemic, and barely survived. This was apparently another significant, or decisive, turning-point in his evolution from popular middlebrow author to radical activist. At least one of his biographers has speculated that he suffered a psychological breakdown during the winter of 1919-20 as a result, with a subsequent ‘addiction to danger that amounted almost to a death-wish.’ The following May, Childers published Military Rule in Ireland, a stinging attack on British policy, and followed it by a series of articles in the weekly Irish Bulletin tearing the Liberal prime minister David Lloyd George to shreds. Childers was secretary to the delegation that negotiated a treaty with Westminster in December 1921, providing for effective Home Rule a year later. Following that, the proposal went, the Dublin government would act as a self-sufficient dominion of the British Empire, much like Canada or Australia. Lloyd George wrote in his diary of a ‘sullen’ Childers, seething with ‘compressed wrath’ that his attempts to bring about total and immediate Irish independence had failed. Winston Churchill went one further, calling him a ‘murderous renegade’, and a ‘strange being, actuated by a deadly hatred for the land of his birth.’

The Anglo-Irish Treaty spurred Childers, and others of his persuasion, to take direct action in the face of what they saw as a sellout to London. After a further series of articles in the perhaps provocatively titled War News, one morning in early November 1922 the now middle-aged and frail Childers set off by bicycle from his current home in County Kerry on the 200-mile journey to confer with Eamon De Valera and his fellow rebels in Dublin. There might almost be a certain wry comedy to the scene, which you could imagine, say, Alec Guinness later portraying on film, but for its consequences. Childers was soon arrested by British troops along the way, and found to be in possession of a small .32 calibre pistol, which may or may not have been in working order, in violation of the recently passed Emergency Powers Resolution.

The subsequent judicial proceedings were swift. Childers was indeed taken to Dublin, if under radically different circumstances than he would have wished, where he was put on trial a week later. The proceedings ended on 18 November 1922, after the defendant had refused to recognise the legitimacy of the British Military Tribunal convened for the event. The possession of the pistol was enough to condemn him to death. Childers lodged an appeal against the sentence, and this was heard the next day by a civil magistrate who said he lacked jurisdiction because of the ongoing paramilitary disturbances in the area. ‘The prisoner disputes the authority of the Tribunal and comes to this Court for protection,’ the judge wrote, ‘but its answer must be that its jurisdiction is ousted by the state of war that he himself has helped to produce.’

Early on the morning of 24 November 1922, Childers, now a stooped, gaunt-looking man of 52, was led into a tin-roofed shed used as a firing range on the Beggars Bush barracks in Dublin, where a row of twelve soldiers was waiting for him in front of an open coffin. Perhaps nothing in the life of this brilliant, troubled and sometimes perverse figure became him like the leaving it. After shaking the hand of each member of the firing squad, his final words were: ‘Take a step or two forwards, lads, it will be easier that way.’ A few hours earlier, Childers’s 16-year-old son – also named Erskine, and a future President of Ireland – had been allowed to briefly visit his father in his cell. The condemned man made him promise two things: that he would forgive every minister in the provisional government who was responsible for his death, and that if he ever went into politics he was never to seek to capitalise on his execution. The younger Childers did as he was asked, and in later years sometimes produced a scrap of paper on which his father had written his last testament: ‘I die loving England, and passionately pray that she may change completely and passionately towards Ireland.’

The hunt for Merlin

The story so far (Chapters 2-8 inclusive have all previously been published on this site, starting here). The complete poem has just been published as A Man of Heart, by Shearsman.

Mid 5th century Britain. After the legions have withdrawn, the island is facing civil war, a growing number of external enemies and a steady tide of pagan migrants looking for land.

Vortigern has been appointed to protect what’s left of Roman Britain. The precarious balance of power he had established has been destroyed by a British revolt, led by his son. He retreats towards the hills with his wife and the remainder of the Field army.

At this point, the late 12th century narrative I’m following slides into a different version of the past, and any connection with History as understood in the 21st century is lost.  

LIAM GUILAR‘s continues his epic of post-Roman Britain

The Hunt for Merlin

Vortigern, his wife and retinue

have retreated to the green hills

with the grey mountains at their back.

The wizards tell him where to build.

Each day the workmen sweat to raise a wall;

during the night the walls collapse.

(Seven times, not three as you’d expect).

The wise-men mumble together then announce

they need the blood of a fatherless boy.[i]

Find him, they thunder, sprinkle his blood

and your fortress will be impregnable.

Rowena, astonished by stone buildings,

seeing magic in the masons’ every move,

understands the fact of sorcery.

Vortigern, patient, muses:

four centuries of Roman stone

and now we cannot build a wall?

He sends men hunting down the hill

into the wooded valleys.

In the unmeasured space between

an end and a beginning, along a ridge,

scraped drop on either side, to the summit.

Looked down at broken clouds, across to distant,

unknown, crumpled peaks. The valley;

inept geometry of distant fields,

a path falling off the ridge towards the track

that followed the scrawl of infant river.

Companions wearing mail,

thick woollen cloaks, dark red,

held at the shoulder with an ornate brooch,

only their eyes visible in the helmet’s gilded face,

reading the boundaries, a line of trees,

a stream, a standing stone.

Saw the rustler’s pathway peeling off the ridge

to meet the hammered track

leading to the cluster of round huts,

pointed roofs and sagging thatch,

fenced space, the drift of smoke.

The perfectly ordinary settlement.

Entering the village, they walk into a silence

abrupt as the chill slap of a breaking wave.

No child is playing. No woman singing at her work.

Painted figures, fading on the grey wall of the cloud.

No one runs away, or screams, or sounds alarum.

No one is reaching for an axe. They stop.

They watch. They follow, herding the strangers towards

the largest hut, white walls blotched

beneath the inept cone of sagging thatch.

The chieftain waits to greet them,

wrapped in a bear skin, the skull as hood.

The messengers stop to admire the skin,

trying to frame a compliment.

The old man nodded. ‘Old ways.

My dad took me down into the trees.

Gave me a spear, said, good luck son.

Come back with a bear skin or don’t come back.’

They step into the hut.

‘You have come for the child.

He says you will take him to his woman.’

Behind the fire, in the gloom,

a dark stain, small and indistinct.

Something catching the light flicks,

golden. ‘Do not deny your mission.

He knows what happened, what will happen’

-The shape moved, seemed larger-

‘could happen.’

This man, who as a child

went after bear, alone,

armed only with a spear,

is terrified.

A girl came to the entrance.

The boy stood up and left with her.

‘I have sent word to his mother.

She will travel to the King.

We have sheltered the abomination

and in return, he has shown us what we are.

True, he has given us dominion

over the peoples of the valley.

He has kept our cattle healthy,

our crops abundant. Terrified,

our neighbours pay us tribute,

sacrifice their daughters to his lust,

give us gold and precious things

from places far beyond

the eastern limit of the Empire.

Glass bowls, jewelled cups,

silk filigreed with gold.

At first we gloated over our success,

and wallowed in the excess of desire.

But then we realised the price we paid.

We have done foul things at his bidding.

But we have seen him part the clouds,

make running water turn to ice in summer.

He has raised a hand and brought down hail,

fist sized, to smash our enemies

and ten feet from them not one of us was touched.

We have done too much to keep him happy.’

Outside someone was sobbing.

‘You are the King’s men.

That makes you loyal and brave.

You stayed when all the others ran.

Take the boy to Vortigern the King

He rarely speaks, he seldom asks…’

The old man’s voice was melting.

‘I would rather face a bear again,

with only these old hands,

than risk the anger of that child.

But warn your King, tell him: take care.

The child will give him anything he wants

but his price will be beyond imagining.

When news spreads that he is gone

our enemies will devastate this village,

take not one slave, touch not one woman.

They will kill everyone and then

erase this stinking cess pit from the landscape.

When they arrive, we shall not fight.

Death will bring a fine forgetting.’ 


The villagers gathered in the fog,

the women clutching their children,

like failed approximations of the living.

The men stranded in poses of dejection.

The chieftain led them along the path

towards the rising hills. As the ground

sloped steeply upwards he left them.

‘You will need a week to reach your King.

By then, if your mind is still intact,

you will believe everything I’ve said.’

On the first day,

they followed the track upstream to the ridge

in fog so thick they never saw the sun.

The boy did not speak.

He didn’t greet them in the morning,

nor wish them well at night.

On the second day they picked their way downstream,

the slopes of scree like broken shards of fog,

scattered in shining fields that clattered away downhill.

On the third day he said;

‘We will go no further in this valley.

My enemies are waiting. 

We must climb that ridge.

On the other side is a village,

where there are horses.

You will kill their owners,

then you will take me to my woman.’

Vortigern had trained them well.

Their plan was clear and simple.

Entering the settlement, first

they would ask for horses

in the King’s name. Then

they would offer to pay.

If this was refused, then,

and only then, the killing would begin.

The boy had other plans.

Eyes closed, swaying, lips mumble,

hands move, an unexpected squall

drives rain against the window

and blurs a clear view. Or on high ground

the clouds move in so fast the outlines disappear

and there’s only vagueness and sudden dark.

Swinging axe and stabbing spear,

cutting through to the surprise

of scattered bodies, bloodied edge.

They were saddling the horses.

‘Where is the boy?’

‘With the women.’
‘I thought we killed them all?’

‘We did.’

There was the rain

and somewhere was the night.

Each man huddled in his own cloak

and endured the darkness

until the boy made a pile of sticks.

A movement of his hands, a black flame,

tinged silver at the edges,

sprang upward like an army

leaping from its place of ambush.

They huddled closer. No light,

but their sodden cloaks began to steam,

their frozen hands unclenched.

The wood was not consumed.

The escort saw the landscape

as passage, difficult or easy;

shelter, safety, risk. The boy?

Scree was the outrider of his enemies,

the scattered boulders sentries for his army,

waiting for the signal to advance.

Only the water was patron and friend,

escorting him towards his woman.

In the woods their passage slowed.

He must greet every tree he passed,

laying his palms flat on each trunk,

lips moving to shape words no one recognized.

If no blossom sprang beneath his hands

that was worse than the making of fire.

3. Merlin’s Mother

Care has worn her face into perfected sorrow.

But even in the habit of a nun,[ii]

she is sensuality incarnate,

a delirious possibility of carnal bliss.

‘Tell me lady, who is the father of this child?’

‘I am a King’s daughter, Conan was his name,

before the Saxon’s came, before they killed him.

I do not know the father of this child.’

‘You were raped? No? So tell me, lady,

tell me, how did you get this child?’

Rowena wraps her cloak around the sobbing woman,

leads her away from the armoured men,

settles down to listen, seeing images.

…summer flies in clouds above the shattered brightness of the pool.

Girl children playing: armoured guards like dirty statues in the shade

along the rocky shore.

‘Beneath my father’s palace a stream snaked between the trees

and upstream of where it cut the path leading from the fort

our childish secret place, a spring running from a carved grey stone,

with swirling snakes coiling around an open mouth

and a broken headless statue.

(We blushed the first time that we saw it, erect, enormous.

Imagine that? And other silly chatter).

My slave girl trying to be important,

told us pagans worshipped this forest god, this half-man, half-goat,

and if a maiden, toying with herself, close to this place of power,

spoke his name three times, he would appear and pleasure her.

No one believed her rubbish.

We were children,

girls in their white shifts splashing in a pool,

drifting through the summer heat.

A long hot summer.

Maybe five years after we had found the stone.

The river shrivelled to a chain of stagnant ponds.

 Unmarried, un-promised

with maids to the river bank.

Tents in the shade of the trees.

Guards? Of course.

On the hottest night,

aware of sweat beading and running

like grazing insects,

aware of my own body,

humming its lust.

 Images of a future husband,

a constriction in the throat,

the heat became intense.

I murmured the god’s name,

opened my eyes to the golden man,

the carving of Priapus come to life.

His eyes blazed golden in the shade.

The frost burn of pleasure.

All night delirium, the rhythms of flesh,

exhausted, weeping with delight, I fell asleep.

In the morning, in the river, trails of blood,

signs of the night’s excesses

but no signs anyone had slipped into my tent.

That afternoon I dreamt

church doors were shut against me.

I saw the priest and congregations

stone a woman in the field

and knew that she was me.

But until the Golden Man returned,

my body crooned for him.

 My mind a swamp of images of what we’d done.

3 nights the Golden Man appeared and played with me.

3 nights of ecstasy I’ll never know again.

Then no more.

I prayed for him. I prayed to him, but the nights were a rack

and I despised the sunrise confirming that he had not come.

I sickened. After three days, my clothes were tight

and food was hateful to me.

In three weeks I gave birth:

 a child with golden eyes.

As they laid it on my breast,

he smiled at me and said:

‘Daddy sends you greetings

You will not meet again.’

And that lady is how I got my child.

Must I stay ‘til it arrives?’

‘You fear your own son?’

‘Speaking his crimes would rot my mouth.

Remembering them is penance enough.’

Rowena let her go.

Vortigern asks: ‘Is it believable?

She wouldn’t be the first maid

who snuck away to meet her lover

and then made up such a story

when she found out she was pregnant.’

‘No. Her fear is genuine.

Whatever he did is so foul she won’t speak it.’ 

4. A Fatherless Boy

The messengers, staggering, 

bring the boy before the King.

Like a dead bird on a wire

animated by the breeze,

a stain gaining definition

as it strikes, the boy,

brushing aside the soothsayers,

swooping towards Rowena.

‘Blessed is the well below the valley.’

He strokes her breast. She recoils,

hands tying invisible knots, speaking

words that no one present understands.

The boy stumbles, recovers, laughs,

brushing flies from his face.

Reluctantly, he turns to Vortigern.

An old man’s voice,

with rust at its edges

and rot at its core.

‘I have loosed the bands of Orion.

I can summon leviathan.

He will make a covenant with me.

I have gone down to hell

and freed the rider in the clouds.

When he’s enthroned upon his mountain

he will bow before me as my slave.

I can harness the unicorn to the plough.

I can make you Emperor.’

‘Of what?

The Empire’s gone.’

‘It can be rebuilt.

For you.

For a price.’

‘And you want my soul?’

‘I wouldn’t wipe my arse on it.

I want your wife.’

Vortigern hears Rowena hiss,

senses she has stepped back,

holding seax in a steady hand.

‘She doesn’t want you.’

‘Look fool!’ Vortigern sees his province,

refined to a detailed map.

To the south, the shrinking stain

of Vortimer’s rabble and across the Channel,

the scum filled puddle of The Boys’ growing horde.

The black plague of uncountable ships,

swarm the coast, or burrow up river

like maggots attacking a corpse.

‘Give me your wife.

I will annihilate your enemies.

I will be a tempest in a field of corn.

The plans that they have nurtured,

their dreams and ambitions, I will ruin

as they watch, like patient farmers

as hail destroys their crops,

announcing their starvation.

Give me your wife.’

‘Child, she is not mine to give.’

Time thickens like a river freezing.

There is only the voice;

a wind from nowhere,

and the images of burning homes,

pestilence, atrocities, famine.

Vortigern sees his kingdom.

The dead lie where they fell,

crops rotting in the fields,

the starving cattle wander free.

He could see misery,

surging over the land and drowning it.

‘I can put an end to this.

That’s what you want;

peace, order, stability.

Give me your wife.’

He sees himself in gold embroidered silk,

seated on a marble throne,

in a many columned hall.

The cities flourishing again,

merchants on the roads,

ships safe in the harbour. He hears

the grateful people speak his name.

No enemies, assassins

outrage or complaints?

This time, he laughs.

The ice breaks.

The river moves.

‘Child, this is not yours to give.

There will always be wars. Always

people who starve while others feast.’

‘You will die alone.

The sky will rain fire.

You will be vilified

for eternity unless

you give me your wife.

They will debate your name

and your existence.

Your life will be obscure,

your death will be unknown

unless you give me your wife.

She is blessed amongst women.

The fruit of her womb will be the Messiah:

a Warrior King to end the Saxon threat,

reconquer Rome and found a Reich

to last a thousand years.

His name will never be forgotten.

Nor will mine.’

‘Child, she is not mine to give.’

Vortigern dwarves the chubby boy;

a foul vagueness slithered from a cave,

shrivelling in the unaccustomed light.

‘Go your way.

Take this gold,

my thanks

for the lesson.’

‘We will not meet again,

Vortigern Dead King.

I could have saved you.’

‘No,’ he says,

with the conviction of a rock.

‘No, you could not.’

5. The end of the province of Britannia

Morning, and the mist filling the valley below,

clouds streaking the sky like smoke plumes

streaming from the distant peaks. The sun

cold, bright and ruthlessly indifferent.

His officers accumulate around the wagon.

A baffled Rowena stands beside him,

leaning into whatever happens next.

The remnants of Britannia’s last Field Army.

Faces he remembers from the day they left for Lincoln[iii].

He knows them all; their families, their stories,

which one can improvise, who imitates a wall,

who plays it safe, who takes a chance. 

‘Some of you are angry. Some feel betrayed.

You think you would have danced

to your crucifixion if a comrade could be saved.

We have all lost friends who gave their lives

so we could live. You think I’m selfish

because I wouldn’t trade this woman to a child

to save the province.’ He heaved a sack towards them.

‘There is all the coin that’s left.’ He threw a second,

two malignant lumps shifting as they settled.

‘And there’s the plunder; gold rings, armbands, torques…’

the list is endless and irrelevant, dismissively

he waves his hand towards the chests beside him.

‘The royal treasury. The province. Britannia.

That’s all that’s left of what we swore to serve.

But what we swore to serve

meant so much more than that.

I will not sacrifice another life

for two bags full of shiny trash.

Divide it now amongst yourselves.

See that no man feels aggrieved.

Those who wish to leave: go home.

Or you can take an oath to follow me.

I will not ask you to do anything

I have not asked before,

but I will make you rich,

and give you lands for your old age.’

The sound of swords being drawn,

the rustle of kneeling men.

Later she finds him, on a fallen trunk.

The twisted branches of the stubborn trees

behind him like a web the boy had spun

to trap a king.

‘You are a strange man, Vortigern Cyning.

Locrin locked a woman up and lost his kingdom.

You risked the loss of yours to set one free.

The two sacks are untouched in the grass

and not one man has left.’

‘We’ve clung to the old titles;

adepts of a failed dispensation,

whose rites and formulas

belong to history, repeating

an incantation that’s familiar,

habitual, comforting,

when it’s obvious the gods

have long since left the temple

and the words no longer work.

It’s a strange new world

we’re stepping into;

clean, cruel and honest.

At least until we discover

new reasons for hypocrisy.’

[i] Laȝamon describes this advice as ‘leasing’ (lies.)  The shift from bishops and priests to wise men and soothsayers is in his text.

[ii] Another one of Laȝamon’s anachronisms. The story of Merlin’s birth and conception follows his version.

[iii] See chapter 4

More information about Laȝamon’s world and work, as well as the two published volumes in this project can be found at

Parnassus, and patria

Tumuli at Revesby in Lincolnshire

Sunken Island: An Anthology of British Poetry

Various authors, edited by Alexander Adams, foreword by William Clouston, London: Bournbrook Press, 2022, pb, 55pps, £12.50

Bournbrook Press is an offshoot of Bournbrook Magazine, founded in 2019 to offer a “primarily British audience with traditionalist, socially conservative argument and entertainment”. This venture’s newest publication is something unusual, and unlikely to be financially profitable – an anthology of original poetry put together specifically to appeal to small-c conservatives, a subset of the population not noted for their interest in new verse.

Poetry written for political purposes always runs a risk of being bathetic, just as other arts can easily become ‘artivism’ – a point amply understood by this collection’s editor-contributor, who has written an informative book on this subject. I have a 1900 anthology on my shelves, Heroic and Patriotic Verse, and while much of the verse is excellent (it includes Byron, Goldsmith, Gray and Shakespeare), some has dated less well, including ‘Of old sat Freedom’ (one of Tennyson’s windier effusions) and the frankly indigestible ‘The Roast Beef of Old England’. The verse in Sunken Island is similarly uneven, but when it is good, it is, as Social Democratic Party leader William Clouston notes in his Foreword, “both serious and enjoyable”.

Clouston also points out that this book’s eight contributors are not “blind to the country’s flaws”, and this gives this collection both muscle and a certain wryness of outlook notably absent from some patriotic poets, like Rupert Brooke or Henry Newbolt. There is no bombast to be found in Sunken Island, nor sentimentality, nor Patience Strong-style platitudes. The two prevailing emotions are love, plus loss – an odd echo of Hugh Kenner’s A Sinking Island (1988), which concluded that “there’s no longer an English literature”. 

Kenner’s gloom is to some extent gainsaid by the poets in here, who suggest that a kind of distinctively English literary sensibility may still be discoverable – or at least a British one, because one of the poets included (the pseudonymous ‘Columba’) is Scottish, while another (Rahul Gupta) is a noted exponent of traditional alliterative verse. This does not mean that the other six contributors are stodgily suburban, nor even a hundred percent English. Alexander Adams is a justly well-regarded artist whose work is in the V&A (several of his drawings are used in Sunken Island). Benjamin Afer calls himself an “authentic reactionary”, but authors futuristic novels. Daniel Gustafsson is a bi-lingual (Swedish) doctor of philosophy, as well as a highly-regarded poet. A. Robert Lee taught in America and Japan, and lives in Spain. Nicholas Murray is a biographer of Kafka and Chatwin, and a Fellow of the Welsh Academy. S. D. Wickett is an aficionado of Lovecraft and Phillip K. Dick, and affianced to digital media.

The poems vary greatly in style. Nicholas Murray’s six short contributions feature everyday vexations, from standing on a train station concourse to being bitten by someone else’s dog (for which he apologises, the most stereotypically ‘English’ moment in the book). He notices small things, and honours the 19th century clergyman-diarist Francis Kilvert, who did too – “…the man of God whose fine gift / for seeing things lights the day / As sunshine after sudden rain”. He looks into a painting of a Lancashire landscape, and remembers its departed artist. He is abashed by the force of nature, in the form of a night wind which blew away rooftiles, and “glib proposals”. He then eavesdrops on an imagined conversation between James Joyce and Percy Wyndham Lewis, as verbose Irishman and Vorticist Englishman consider quantity, and the urgent need to stir things up, to dissolve “the solid shell”. 

A Robert Lee’s contribution, ‘From…’, addresses Englishness, coherent but complicated, encapsulated by the “multi-there” and “multi-then” of his own odyssey from 1950s Manchester via London, America, and Japan to 2022’s Spain. “The initial from takes on lengthening distance…” while everything changes and he changes with it, but remains in some ways strangely the same. ‘From…’ is more impressionistic jottings than verse, yet it ably conveys diverse textures and odd connections – between Manchester, Lancashire and Manchester, New Hampshire – between London periods and London postcodes – between the Kents of Chaucer and supermarkets – between the island mentalities of Britain and Japan, and the “inside outsider” status of being a Spanish-speaking Englishman in Spain. In him, national nostalgia seems in permanent tension with what Germans call Fernweh – ‘farsickness’, a wish to see far-off places – and perhaps he needed to get away to understand where he had come from. As Kipling asked, “what should they know of England who only England know”? Lee at least has come “to relish the from and the to: England’s away-day, England’s away-life”.

Adams’ poem ‘Roadside Diner, Shropshire’ is less sanguine, a contrast between the heartbreaking hills of Housman, and the plastic-bottle spotted county Adams and companion view from a bleary café window, downing terrible food while “vital, indifferent” traffic dashes by, heading nowhere purposefully. This England is, he repines, “an absent people, a civilization surrendered”, and sometimes he feels like a “lone journalist remembrancing a defeated land”. Lack of legacy nags and nags at him, as he sees sunning girls arising and going “back to life, leaving nothing of themselves” – fewer traces than even the evanescent, underestimated flowers of May.

Daniel Gustafsson’s ‘Bulbs’ strikes a brighter botanical note, reminding us that even the gnarliest corm in the coldest ground pushes green spears upwards each spring, offering potential for beauty and self-realisation. His work is rhizomed in Yorkshire, a county whose notoriously crumbling Holderness coast offers plentiful metaphors for erosion of substance. “The guards have let us down”, Gustafsson warns, political leaders and opinion-formers mere “architects of entropy”, letting everything slide into the abyss out of sheer carelessness. “We’ve seen our footings fall / to sludge… have seen, through slurred decrees and sleights of hand, / a state of blank forgetfulness / usurp the patterned sand.” Spurn Point at the northern tip of the Humber could be nationally emblematic, a sandy spur soon to be an island, near where the great port of Ravenspur once saw kings land, and monks build monumentally. The East Riding’s erosion is symbolic to him of a country’s “great diminishing”, as a former “common ground” is washed across by shallow sloganeers, who impose their views on others like some postmodern Morality Police.   

Gustafsson’s lyrical wistfulness is given a more combative edge by Benjamin Afer, whose ‘Lines on an English Street’ express feelings of inner exile, the author feeling alienated from his ancestral domain by demographic changes as symbolized by ethnic restaurants – “a surfeit of whiffs”, from an alphabet soup of eateries in High Streets that have somehow become Grand Bazaars. “It’s a solitary walk the Englishman beats / In the swelling crowds of the English streets”, he insists bleakly, notwithstanding possible economic upsides: “The happy ringing of tills and drumming feet / Make a merchant at home on the English street.”

The collection closes on an unexpected crescendo, with four extracts from larger works by Rahul Gupta. The author, who holds a doctorate in alliterative verse, and is undertaking a major translation project from Old Norse, is alive with logophilic intensity, pouring torrents of words onto pages as if upending some wonderfully capacious cornucopia. Familiar words are deployed in unexpected ways, unfamiliar ones summoned from OE word-hoards where they have lain too long asleep, and new ones are smithed – and all are marshalled to striking mythopoeic purpose.

Gupta’s chief area of operations is the post-Roman, pre-English world, when Angles, Celts, Jutes, Saxons and Scandinavians moved across claimable spaces between downfallen towns, where horse-masters could be kings and stones sacred, and ravens battened on bodies at real battles whose locations we have lost, and which we barely now remember even as names. This is ‘Matter of Britain’-territory, Gog Magog-country, the Logres that lies under even the ugliest parts of everyday England, giving the least imaginative modern Englishman some vague sense that he belongs in some continuum. This epic subject – so liable to be conventionalised and sentimentalised – gains vastly in vitality at his hands.

‘A Norse Étude’ is a combat scene condensed from all the hyperboreal epics, from Heimskringla and Orkneyinga to Beowulf and the Battle of Maldon, imagining “horny-nebbed” hooded crows descending on men falling under a hail of “Flanged arrows as flinder- / fledges leapt from edges / over shields, bows shrilling, / when shank-deep was dankness / of gore”.  Poems were – and are – also weapons in these wars of all against all, as tribal minstrels interpret and invent legends, weaving words “from that web of swords”, trying to forge the future by capturing the past.

‘The Turn and Fall of Leaf’ could be a title from Tolkien (to whom Gupta has been likened), a lambent disquisition on autumn, its colours and significances, its glories and sadness, as the glowing greenwood goes glorious, then brown and blighted. Winds pick up and shiver the timbers, and their chlorophyll clothes weep to the far-below floor. Secret glades are shockingly made naked, and rides are mounded deep in dry detritus – “pathways choked, by parched masses: / crinkled chamoisy, crunched underfoot / as shuffling drifts. With shift and ruffle / They enswathe the sward”.

Time for ‘The Onset of Winter’, with clouds and winds as “sky-skirmishers, obscure armies / of ill omen”. The Wild Hunt passes, baying and foaming hounds headed by Herne, antler-masked “wood-warlock of the warrior-band”, in elemental pursuit of white harts from heraldry, while berserkers and whippers-in howl and scream and “chew the shieldedge” in frenzy. And then – the chase passes and the thrumming hoofbeats recede into infinity. Nature exhales, and all is suddenly motionless. Overhead, “Hunter and Hound are hovering still” in a sky diamonded with stars and a moon of mother-of-pearl.

At other times, winter deals harsh hail and sleet to punish the patient earth – “gravel-grain that grows no harvest”. Yet other days, snowfall hushes all noise, subdues all striving; a giant Cold Genius walks the whitening land with his finger to his lips, casting crystals of infinite variety indifferently over the quick and the dead, obliterating boundaries, ivorying all the colour-fields. “All wear his harness: / ironhardened earth” and “The ice tightens / Wonderfetters”.

But there is release at last, as even in winter there is the possibility of warmth. In ‘The Midwinter Sun’, the “all-tending orb” suddenly rides high and reaches down with effortless sensuality. He “…drives the spore: he inspires the bud, / as the twig whitens, to untwist her whorl: / he parts her petals; the pollen to smoulder / from flaunting catkins”. Blinking, yawning animals emerge from hibernation, hungry for the starting grass, conscious of urgent impulses that make the male hen harrier seek out multiple mates, send hares careering across champaigns, adders intertwine Gordianally, and unsettle cattle in crew yards. The poet tracks Phoebus lovingly through his golden ascents, then Wheel of Fortune downturns, as the “traitor-barons…eclipse the glory of his lion’s mane”, as so often before. The uncertain sun sinks into the sea, and troubled men set out in tiny boats, “travailing westward /… on benighted tides, / In search of the dawn.” Like all his others, this is a virtuosic performance, a welcome reminder that there is still blood in the tradition.

The contributors to this volume could all be seen like Gupta’s metaphorical sailors, navigators of unknown waters, seeking Sol-ace in a gathering dark, reaching for verse to reverse eclipse. If sometimes their reach falls short, at other times it does not, and always they are honourably-intentioned. This public-spirited Parnassian project can be judged a success if even a few of the many other anxious among the English are inspired to poetry in their turn.