About Me

My photo
I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Monday, September 25, 2023

Bill Gate's brother - the early days.....

Just Finished Reading: A Brief History of the Battle of Agincourt by Christopher Hibbert (FP: 1964) [141pp] 

The Hundred Years war between England and France was on ‘pause’. But England’s new King, Henry V, had other ideas and was determined to end the conflict once and for all – and in England’s favour. Opening negotiations with Paris after securing war financing from Parliament and securing loans from banks and wealthy individuals (who actually had little choice in the matter) Henry was playing a double game. He knew that eventually the French would tire of his demands and war would be ‘forced’ upon him. So it was, late in 1415, that an invasion fleet sailed across the English Channel to land near the town of Harfleur. This is when things started to go wrong. Not only did the inhabitants of that town (supposedly already Henry’s property) decide to fight they did so very ably. Unprepared for a long siege, indeed for any siege, the English forces struggled to make headway. Only after many weeks, many deaths and much disease in both the town and the encircling English camp did the town finally fall – in no small part due to the failure of superior French forces in the rest of the country to co-ordinate any action in its defence. With a significant proportion of his army dead or dying, Henry decided to march to the nearest English strongpoint – Calais. In order to do that they needed to cross the river Seine – but the French knew that too and ensured that no fording place was available or uncontested. The resulting march East – away from Calais – to find a suitable ford to cross both exhausted and demoralised the English force. Finally, after much trial and error and a few notable skirmishes the Seine was crossed, and the march West could begin. By this time the French had finally agreed on a plan, and they sat across the only road that they knew the English needed to approach their objective. Only after the subsequent battle was over did the victorious Henry ask for the name of the nearest castle. He was told – Agincourt. 

Along with the Battle of Crecy (1346), the Battle of Agincourt (25th October 1415) is a defining encounter with the French during the Hundred Years war. It’s certainly one of those dates – along with 1066, 1805 and 1815 – that any English school kid of my generation could rattle off when asked for such things. What is surprising though is just how almost irrelevant it was, except for the fact that it destroyed a goodly chunk of that period's French aristocracy. The numbers, actually the disparity in numbers, is staggering. It’s impossible now to establish the exact figures but somewhere around 8,000 French died during or shortly after the three-hour battle. The highest estimate for English casualties is 500 and is probably more likely to be around 100 of which most were injured, not killed. It was far less of a battle and much more of a slaughter. But what, in the end did it achieve? The victorious English army and its King left France and less that 40 years later the war was over with the French holding all of the disputed territory except for the enclave at Calais which finally fell in 1558 during the Italian War of 1551–1559. 

As you might expect from such a short book – it was a brief history after all – this narrative rattled along at pace. Despite this it was full of interesting observations and contained a detailed review of the battle itself (as well as the Siege of Harfleur). Although rather dated now (I think I’ll look out for more up to date histories of the conflict) this is still worth reading. Recommended to anyone interested in the Hundred Years war or the Medieval Period in general.  

[Labels Added: 0, Labels Total: 69]

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Just Finished Reading: The First Four Minutes by Roger Bannister (FP: 1955/2004) [237pp] 

It was one of THOSE challenges. Some thought it impossible, simply beyond human capacity. It certainly seemed that way. For years it had been ever so slowly approached but never surpassed. Of course, there’s nothing quite like the ‘impossible’ to motivate people. But if a man could climb Everest, then a man could run the Four Minute Mile – at least theoretically. The question was: How. Would it be enough to run a series of quarter-mile races in less than a minute or would it take something more, something that would draw on reserves yet to be imagined. Trainee doctor and Oxford University runner was about to find out. 

OK, let’s just start by saying this is a very unusual read for me – I mean, SPORT, right? Not just running for fun but actual competitive sport. So, odd it certainly is. But the breaking of the (proven mythical) Four-Minute mile ‘barrier’ was an iconic post-War achievement so there was a certain appeal to the whole thing. As anyone growing up in England not too long after the event, Bannisters achievement has become part of the English mythos even for non-sports people like me. What I didn’t know, and was most intrigued to find out, was the process behind the headlines. It did not fail to interest – much to my surprise. For one thing this was a very well written book – despite the author being just 26 when this was published. He certainly knew how to build tension and tell a good, often personal, story. 

I think one thing that surprised me most was just how haphazard and amateurish his whole training process was. For most of his early career he had no coach and regime – he essentially did what he thought best and what ‘felt right’. Indeed, he was very sceptical indeed of any kind of rigid dogmatic ideas about running. Bannister ran because he liked it and trained in-between other things – he was training to be a doctor after all. Another thing that surprised me was the fact that, apart from track running, he ran cross-country races and spent his off-hours fell-running and hill climbing, either of which could’ve resulted in sprained or broken ankles despite also aiming at breaking the Four Miles! These days he’d probably be called ‘reckless’ in this regard. The other thing I found particularly interesting was his observations of the (recently) post-War world as he travelled to run in competitions in Europe, Scandinavia, New Zealand and the US. His observations, particularly about early-50's America (most especially compared to austerity Britain still barely recovering from the War) were rather eye-opening! 

I won’t give anything away here by saying that he did, finally, break the Four Minute ‘barrier’ on 6th May 1954 with a time of 3:59.4 seconds. This was a world class record that lasted exactly 46 days before being beaten in Finland by Australian John Landy in 3:58 dead. Rather oddly, just like the ‘sound barrier’, the record for the mile started falling with regularity as soon as it became breakable and now stands at 3:43.13 seconds. Interesting in the book, Bannister believed that the absolute limit was 3:30 seconds on his understanding of human physiology. Definitely a different read for me and an informative one especially if you have any interest in running, sport or sporting records.

[Labels Added: 0, Labels Total: 69]