Surviving History

ADVENTURE, WAR, MURDER, SLAVERY, ESPIONAGE: from the internationally bestselling author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg and eight other history books. New post each Tuesday.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012


He was naked, grunting and digging up roots in the forest.
Wild Child: Victor, from Truffaut's classic film
As he stuffed raw acorns into his mouth, he was spotted by three sportsmen on horseback. They gave chase, intrigued by such a bizarre creature, only to watch wide-eyed as the wild child before them scrambled into the upper branches of a tree.
It was 1798 and the feral child of Aveyron - a rugged area of southern France - was about to become an unwitting celebrity.
Victor: the closest likeness
The sportsmen eventually caught him and named him Victor. Pleased with their captive, who was more like an animal than a person, they took him to a nearby lodgings for further study.
Taken for further study: Victor, by Truffaut
But Victor escaped before they could discover his identity. 
‘He fled to the mountains,’ they said, disconsolate about losing their prize, ‘where he wandered about during the severity of a most rigorous winter, clad only in a tattered shirt.’
Try as they might, they were unable to recapture him.
Victor's untimely disappearance might have been the end of the story, but in the following year he sought refuge in nearby St Sernin.
Captured for a second time, and taken to the town of Rodez, he was held for some months in various places. In each place he stayed, he was ‘equally wild, impatient of restraint and capricious in his temper, continually endeavouring to get away.’
Wild landscape for a wild child
Eventually a clergyman named Pierre Joseph Bonnaterre had the wild child brought to Paris, in order to study him more closely. Bonnaterre planned to introduce him to all the leading experts, to see if they could discover more about him.
One morning, shortly after Victor arrived in Paris, it began to snow. Bonnaterre was amazed by the child’s reaction. ‘He uttered a cry of joy, leaped from his bed, ran to the window… and at length escaped half dressed into the garden.’
Bonnaterre watched in incredulity as Victor ‘rolled himself in the snow and, taking it up by handfuls, devoured it with incredible avidity.’
Victor’s origins remained a mystery - one that fascinated the savants of Paris. This was the period of the Enlightenment, when intellectuals and philosophers were preoccupied with the issues of human nature.
Itard adopted Victor for further study
What distinguishes men from animals? And how much difference can education make?
Victor eventually ended up in the care of Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, a young medical student who devoted a great deal of time to studying this apparently feral child.
Itard’s self appointed task was to civilise him: in particular, to teach him to speak and to show human emotion.
The real Itard: a savant
Itard was both fascinated and revolted by the child in his care. ‘He was a disgusting, slovenly boy, affected with spasmodic and frequently with convulsive motions… like some of the animals in the menagerie, biting and scratching those who contradicted him.’
Some said Victor would never be educated: others contended that it was achievable in a matter of months.
Itard set to work, making careful notes of every aspect of the wild child’s behaviour. His aims were four-fold: to attach him to social life, to awaken his senses, to teach him ideas and to teach him to speak.
Victor: insensitive to pain
Each one of these objectives was to prove problematic, for Victor had spent his formative years in the wild. His eyes were without any expression and he was insensitive to noise. Strangely, he was unable to distinguish between a painting and an object in relief. Nor could he undertake mundane tasks like opening a door.
‘In a word,’ wrote Itard, ‘his whole existence was a life purely animal.’
On one occasion, Victor was handed a dead canary. He showed no sorrow for the bird. Rather, ‘in an instant, he stripped off its feathers [and] tore it open with his hands.’
Victor: cleaned up for society
Itard intervened before the lad could eat the bird.
Itard spent years working with Victor and he did eventually make some progress. Victor learned the meaning of actions and developed a primitive form of communication. But he only ever learned two words: ‘lait’ and ‘Dieu’
He never made the progress that Itard had strived for; he concluded that the wild child of Aveyron was ‘the mental and psychological equivalent of a born deaf-mute.’
As for Victor, he must have been bewildered by all the attention. He eventually died in 1828 - after 30 years of examination - at the house of Itard’s kindly housekeeper.
His real name, identity and background remained a mystery to this day. 

UK hardback
My new book, Russian Roulette, is now published in the UK and available here. An extraordinary tale of British espionage inside post-revolutionary Russia. USA and foreign editions in 2014 

'A gripping history of derring-do... [readers] will find themselves as gripped as they would be by the very best of Fleming or le Carre' - Sunday Times.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Kathy Kerbow had just got up to dance when she heard a deafening crash.
The Andrea Doria lists heavily.
The ship shuddered violently and then began to list.
It was clear that there had been a catastrophic collision. Yet neither Kathy, nor anyone else on board the SS Andrea Doria, realised that the stricken liner would soon sink to the bottom of the sea.
The Andrea Doria was the epitome of luxury. Launched in 1951, this glittering liner was making a routine of the Atlantic with some 1,700 passengers and crew on board.
The epitome of luxury
On 25 July, 1956, she was nearing the end of her voyage and due to arrive in New York on the following morning.
For many hours she had been sailing through dense fog. The captain had reduced speed - a customary procedure in such conditions - and closed the ship’s watertight doors. 
With visibility reduced to a few feet, he was reliant on the vessel’s radar.
Stockholm: still afloat. Just.

Outside the fog bank, but travelling towards it at high speed, was the MS Stockholm, another passenger liner. The two vessels had reached a combined speed of 40 knots.
Each captain was aware of the other vessel: the Andrea Doria was steering hard to port, for Captain Calamai was intending to pass the Stockholm starboard to starboard.
The Stockholm was meanwhile steering hard to starboard, intending to pass the Andrea Doria port to port. This meant that the two vessels were actually heading directly towards each other.
At 11.10pm, the Stockholm slammed into the side of the Andrea Doria, her ice-breaking prow ripping through the metal and penetrating deep into the cabins.
Doomed: nothing could save her.
‘Pandemonium broke out,’ recalled Kathy Kerkow, ‘chairs fell over and glasses broke. Many people were pushing passed me, running to the other side of the room.’
Kathy attempted to return to her cabin to get her life jacket, aware that the ship was in danger. The corridors and stairs were choked with people trying to get out on deck.
The end...
Passenger David Hollyer was in his cabin when the collision occurred. ‘We were rocked by a violent lurch accompanied by a horrendous scraping noise. The lights blinked briefly. Within seconds our cabin had tipped steeply.’
He leaped out of bed; he and his wife then joined the throng of passengers trying to get on deck.
No one yet realised that the collision had been catastrophic. Five empty fuel tanks had been ripped open: these instantly filled with 500 tons of seawater. The ship began to list sharply. The engineers attempted to pump out the water but it failed to right the ship.
... is nigh.
The Stockholm was also badly damaged; the entire bow had been crushed and mangled. Yet a hasty check correctly concluded that she would not sink.
On the Andrea Doria, the captain took the reluctant decision to abandon ship. There were enough lifeboats for everyone, but such was the list of the vessel that those on the port side could not be lowered.
There was no question of women and children first. The first three boats to reach the Stockholm contained Italian crew members.
On the bottom: artist's impression
For many on board, it was a struggle to get out on deck. ‘We crawled on our hands and knees up the steeply slanting highly-polished ballroom floor across broken glass [and] debris from the bar…’ recalled Daniel Hollyer. ‘We finally reached the high port side of the promenade deck.’
He and his wife eventually slipped into the water and swam to one of the  lifeboats sent from the Stockholm.
There were now other ships on the scene, including the SS Ile de France which had picked up the SOS distress signal.
There are prizes for those who dare
By daybreak, all those not killed in the initial collision had been rescued, leaving 46 dead on board.
Captain Calamai still hoped to save his stricken liner, but by 9am even he gave up hope. The ship began to sink at 9.45am.
‘Shortly after 10 o’clock, she gave up the struggle, recalled Hollyer, ‘turning over and sliding prow first into her watery grave in a froth of foam and bubbles.’
The 46 people who died in the collision were not the only fatalities. In the last 30 years, ten divers have died while exploring the wreck.
With shredded nets trailed over the vessel, a disintegrating hull and treacherous currents, the Andrea Doria remains a death trap for those daring enough to dive to this most tantalising of luxury graveyards. 

UK paperback
Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War available here for just £5.30

And for my American readers, it is now published under the title: The Boy Who Went to War: The Story of a Reluctant German Soldier in WWII available here
Newly published US edition
'Idiosyncratic and utterly fascinating... an extraordinary tale of hardship, horror and amazing good fortune' James Delingpole, The Daily Mail 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


The plumber that wasn't: Magee

On the weekend of 14 September, 1984, a plumber by the name of Roy Walsh checked into the Grand Hotel in Brighton.
He aroused no suspicions during his three-day stay and none of the hotel staff noticed anything untoward taking place in his room.
Indeed, it would be almost a month before they would discover that Roy Walsh was not a plumber at all, and nor was he who he claimed to be.
Target: Mrs Thatcher
He was actually an IRA operative named Patrick Magee and he had checked into Room 629 in order to plant 13kg of gelignite inside a cavity in the bathroom wall.
Devastation at the Grand Hotel
The explosive was on a long-delay timer: it was set to explode in the early hours of 12 October, when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her ministers would all be sleeping in the hotel.
Mrs Thatcher was accustomed to work late into the night and 11 October was no exception. She was due to deliver her conference speech on the following day and she was still at work long after midnight.
It was 2.40am when her speech was finished: her aides went to bed, leaving only her secretarial staff to type up the text.
Mrs T's bathroom at the Grand
Some 10 minutes later, her private secretary, Robin Butler, asked her to look at an official paper. While she was chatting to Butler there was a loud thud and her suite of rooms was violently shaken, shattering the windows and sending shards of glass across the carpet.
Mrs Thatcher had no idea that a massive bomb had gone off inside the hotel. Indeed neither she nor Robin Butler realised that a gaping chasm had been ripped through the heart of the Grand Hotel, causing death and destruction.
Five were killed in the blast
The Prime Minister’s room had been sheltered from the blast. ‘Apart from the broken glass and a ringing fire alarm set off by the explosion,’ she later recalled, ‘there was a strange and as it turned out deceptive normality.’ Even the lights remained on: somehow, the electricity in her area of the hotel had not been cut.
Not until 3.10am - more than 20 minutes after the explosion - was Mrs Thatcher and her colleagues told that they must leave the building.
They were hussled down a corridor towards an exit, but it was blocked with rubble and they couldn’t get through.
They were then led towards the main staircase, after being told it was the safest way out. ‘It was now that I first saw from the rubble in the entrance and foyer something of the seriousness of the blast… the air was full of thick cement dust.’
The damage to the hotel was on a devastating scale. The bomb had ripped an enormous hole in the centre of the building, killing five people and gravely wounding several others. The wife of Norman Tebbit, President of the Board of Trade, was left permanently disabled.
A defiant Iron Lady at the conference
The IRA claimed responsibility on the following morning: ‘Today we were unlucky,’ read their statement, ‘but remember, we only have to be lucky once; you will have to be lucky always. Give Ireland peace and there will be no war.’
Mrs Thatcher remained defiant and won many plaudits in the process. She was insistent that the conference would continue as planned, stating that the bombing was ‘an attempt to cripple Her Majesty’s democratically elected Government.’
The new look Mrs T.
She was nevertheless deeply shaken by the loss of five friends and admitted in her memoirs that she was worried lest she break down while making her conference speech.
Patrick Magee was not arrested until June of the following year. He received eight life sentences for his part in the Brighton bombing. The judge called him a man of ‘exceptional cruelty and inhumanity.’
Magee later said he regretted the deaths, although he didn’t regret the bombing itself. ‘All avenues were closed to us… our only recourse was to engage in a violent conflict.’
After 14 years in prison Magee was released in 1999 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.
It remains unclear to this day if he acted alone in planning the bombing that came within a whisker of wiping out the British government. 

UK paperback
Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War available here for just £5.30

And for my American readers, it is now published under the title: The Boy Who Went to War: The Story of a Reluctant German Soldier in WWII available here
Newly published US edition
'Idiosyncratic and utterly fascinating... an extraordinary tale of hardship, horror and amazing good fortune' James Delingpole, The Daily Mail