Friday, 20 September 2019

Doctor in Jail

Two recent books give a vivid insight into 
what goes on in prison. It isn’t pretty 

It’s an afternoon at Bronzefield, a British women’s prison near Ashford in Surrey. Dr Amanda Brown hears a rumpus going on as she arrives to begin her shift. Prison officers are charging up the metal stairs. “Someone’s having a baby,” she’s told. She follows, noting the “deep stench of overcooked vegetables from lunch ...mixed with sweat and cheap soap.” She pushes her way past a bunch of officers and into a cell, where a tiny young woman is standing, her nightie soaked in blood below the waist. “Get it out of me! Get it out of me!” the woman screams. She is referring to the placenta, not the child; the latter, a tiny baby girl, is lying in a pool of blood on the floor. But the child is alive.

Meanwhile an American prison doctor, Karen Gedney MD, receives a prisoner in her office.

She is trying to give him support and help; he’s a Vietnam veteran who is serving life. He killed a cop and knows he isn’t going anywhere. Gedney has talked to him before but this time, things go wrong; he pins her to the wall using her desk and takes her hostage. He holds her hostage four 14 hours, during which he rapes her. Then the prison staff disable him with a stun grenade and kill him. A few days later Gedney goes to the gym, where another women says she’s glad she’s okay and nothing happened to her.

“No,” I said tightly. “Nothing happened to me, except that I was taken hostage by force, raped, exposed to a concussion grenade and saw someone blown away.” 
“Um – you need help,” she said, got off the machine, and walked to one further down the row. 

If you’re married to a prison doctor, I guess you don’t ask them if they had a good day at the office. 

Amanda Brown’s The Prison Doctor was published in June 2019, Karen Gedney’s 30 Years Behind Bars in early 2018. Brown’s book has had a significant impact and has sold very well, at least in the UK; Gedney’s has attracted less attention, but it is just as good a book. Both give a remarkable insight into what it’s like to be a prisoner in the UK or US today. It is not pretty.

Neither woman sought this line of work; it found them.

Karen Gedney qualified as a doctor in the mid-1980s. In the US, this has never been a cheap undertaking; today the average American medical student emerges with around $170,000-worth of debt, and some sources put the total cost of becoming a doctor much higher. But Gedney’s studies were financed by the National Health Service Corps, which provides scholarships for healthcare providers. The payoff is a period of public service in areas where there is a shortage of medical professionals.

Thus one day in 1987, Gedney finds that she’s been placed, unexpectedly, in a prison. Gedney does not name the prison, or even the region of the US, in the book, so I shall respect that and won’t do so here. But it is very easy to identify online if one wishes; suffice to say that it’s in a southwestern state. The upside is that it’s local, and she and her husband will not have to move. The downside is that the prison does not really want her. Gedney later hears that it had been forced to recruit a proper doctor because it faced being sued for inadequate healthcare provision. The medical staff do not give her a warm welcome. No-one seems friendly and one of the first things she sees is a prisoner being forcibly restrained and then bitten by a guard dog while having a seizure (she insists on treating him). Finally one of the staff, friendlier than the rest, offers to show her round. She is then told dismissively by a nursing assistant that the man is not staff but a prisoner and is a child-molester.

Amanda Brown has also arrived by accident. Up to 2004 she has worked as a GP, or general practitioner – that is, a family doctor, the equivalent of a primary care provider in the US. In The Prison Doctor, Brown says that the introduction of a new GP contract in 2004 caused friction between herself and at least one of her practice partners, so she left. The dispute sounds rather sudden. At any rate, Brown pens an angry article about the new contract for the GP’s magazine, Pulse. Another doctor sees it and recruits her for the prison service. It’s not a job that’s ever occurred to Brown but, aged about 50, she decides on a career change.

Brown has an easier introduction than Gedney to prison life, being welcomed by colleagues

at Huntercombe, a young offenders’ prison (at the time; it has since become an adult prison). But she too is taken aback by some of her new patients. Brown is shocked, at first, at the extent to which the inmates self-harm. They do it, she decides, to “displace pain they feel in their own minds – it can be anything from a scratch on the wrist to attempted suicide.” But what Brown finds at Huntercombe is nothing to what she’ll see at her next gig. Wanting a challenge, in 2009 she transfers to Wormwood Scrubs.

The Scrubs, as it is often called, is one of the UK’s oldest and most notorious prisons; as Brown recalls, it’s been “home” to some of the worst people on earth. Brown cites a few, including Charles Bronson and Ian Brady. Built in 1875, it currently houses around 1,200 prisoners. It is a hard place to work. Brown pulls few punches about what she has seen. Within a week or two she answers an alarm after an attempted suicide. She squeezes into the cell with the prison officers already there:

I pushed my way through them into what I can only describe as a bloodbath. There was blood everywhere – splattered across the walls, on the bed sheets. On the concrete floor, writhing in a pool of his own blood, was a young man with a massive slit across his throat

She wonders briefly whether the prisoner has smuggled a razor into the prison somehow to do this. Later she learns just how ingenious prisoners can be. Drugs can be brought in in the form of letters that have been impregnated with them and are then smoked. She’ll be ticked off herself for absent-mindedly bringing chewing gum into the grounds; it’s banned because it is used to take impressions of keys. Spiral-bound notebooks are also proscribed because wire binding can be used to pick a lock. Phones are forbidden as they can be used for criminal activity, and even an old one, if smuggled in, can command a price of £300-400 (about $360-480 at current rates).

One of Brown’s major duties, in the Scrubs as elsewhere, is to screen incoming prisoners and ensure that they do not need immediate medical attention, and that they have any medication they may need. They may be arriving from another prison, but in some cases they are on remand and have been walking the streets a day or so earlier; they are still in shock and are often very frightened. Gauging whether they can safely be left alone in a cell is a huge responsibility – one that eventually weighs heavily on Brown, especially after she gives evidence at an inquest on a prisoner who appeared normal on arrival but died in a cell from unknown causes a few hours after she saw him. It’s this strain, in part, that eventually persuades her to leave the Scrubs and go to HMP Bronzefield. But she has managed seven years at one of Britain’s most notorious prisons.

Over in the States, Gedney has even more problems. The management staff who do not want her there launch an “official” investigation into her conduct, something she only learns of by accident; shown the files, she is shocked by some of the comments. They include “She gives preferential treatment to blacks because she’s married to one” (which, as it happens, she is). Her Director is sympathetic, but says he can’t do anything because “they’ve got something on me”. Gedney has a four-year service obligation and cannot easily cut and run. She sweats it out. And in the end, she stays for good; it is not quite clear why she does so, but the work seems to have got under her skin. She finally retired from the prison as recently as 2016.

There are some differences between the two women’s working environments. Brown presents the prison staff as a mainly good bunch who would like to help the prisoners if they can. Gedney sees a more complicated picture. Early on, a prisoner arrives in severe pain; her nursing staff dismiss him, with contempt, as just having gas. Gedney finds he is having
The Scrubs
a heart attack. Meanwhile the director of medicine is the wife of the deputy warden and both are downright unhelpful. Gedney never really finds out why. Her husband thinks he can explain the hostile response from the prison staff. “You probably intimidate them. Think about it. You’re a doctor, and how many of them do you think have even gone to college?” Gedney also encounters racial tensions in the prison and hears of the way some of the prison officers talk about black people. In town, her own husband, a professional man, is pulled over and asked for his parole papers.

Gedney has two other big challenges that Brown need not confront. One is the death penalty. As a public servant, she regards it as the state’s decision as to whether a man will die; as an individual, however, she feels it is her decision as to whether she will participate. When a man is executed in 1989, she refuses. (Again, she chooses not identify the man so I won’t do so here, but it is not hard to find out who he was.) She doesn’t know him but he clearly knows who she is, and leaves her an extraordinary and moving letter. Later, she treats a cancer patient who is awaiting execution, and accedes to his wish not to prolong his life. She then finds that some people are angry that she did not keep him alive long enough to be killed.

The other horror that Gedney faces that Brown does not, is Vietnam. Today, the American survivors of the war are quite old. But when Gedney entered the prison service in 1987, the last American troops had been out of Vietnam for only 14 years are so; they were still around, and were a mess. To be sure, the country that was really traumatised by Vietnam was Vietnam, with – according to some estimates – three million dead. Nonetheless over 58,000 American troops were killed there, and according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, a staggering 2.7 million served in-country. Today, according to Bureau of Justice stats, veterans in the US are no more likely to be in jail than anyone else; a bit less likely, in fact. But in 1978 they accounted for about 24% of all prisoners. These figures should be interpreted with care, as men serving in Vietnam were often draftees, and the ability or otherwise to avoid the draft must have been defined to some extent by one’s social class – in short, many of these men were more risk of jail anyway. Besides, there were more veterans; some of Korea and even World War II will still have been around, as well as those from Vietnam. Even so, it is a staggering statistic.

Gedney does not quote these figures, but is very aware of what the Vietnam veterans have been though. Her own husband is one; shot through the chest on Christmas Eve 1969, it took him a year to recover and his first wife, told that he wouldn’t, left him. Gedney encourages him to come into the prison and help found a veteran’s support group, and he does. The fact that she has earlier been raped by one of the veterans does not stop her from doing this.

Although some of the challenges the two doctors face are different, others are the same. Drugs are one; Gedney’s patients are on meth and more, and she encounters a prisoner with Hepatitis B who has been sharing his shooting-up gear with multiple people. Meanwhile Brown must deal with psychotic episodes brought on by prisoners’ use of spice, a synthetic cannabinoid that is being smuggled in in large quantities. Another phenomenon both must deal with is prisoner-on-prisoner violence. This is especially bad when it comes to those convicted of sexual offences against minors – the “cho-mos”, as they are called in the States; in Britain they are known as nonces. Arriving at the Scrubs, Brown is soon called to the first case she sees of violence against a nonce, a man in his seventies who is lying on the floor of his cell after a savage beating. Later she deals with something even worse:

A sickening indefinable smell hung in the airless room. I swallowed hard to stop myself retching. ...Severe burns covered the man’s naked body. His chest and both arms were blistered and bright red, with some areas oozing watery fluid, suggesting deep second-degree burns.

The man has been attacked in the shower. The other prisoners have flung boiling sugar water over him. This is used because it is more painful – the sugar glues itself to the victim’s skin, so that the boiling water is in contact with it for longer. Meanwhile in the States, Gedney treats a man who’s been subject to a “lock-in-a-sock party”, where a group of prisoners attack a cho-mo with sock that have padlocks stuffed down them. He needs 68 stitches on his head.

Brown describes these attacks but does not comment much on them. Gedney does. At one point she recounts a conversation with a sexual offender in which she clearly tries to understand how he got that way. She also tries to understand the savagery shown to them, and quotes a prisoner saying: “Every group needs someone to hate. Whether you’re white, black or Latino, it doesn’t matter. But what we all agree is hating the cho-mos.” A little later she treats a white supremacist leader dying of emphysema and again tries to get his story and listen to him. She comments: “Maybe I was naive, but it seemed to me that many people in both groups [the supremacists and the molesters] shared similar traits. They had been victims themselves, and then become victimizers. That was a cycle that needed to be broken.”

In general, Gedney is a lot more reflective than Brown – at least in print; the latter may have thoughts she doesn’t express. Brown mostly doesn’t know what her patients are inside for, and likes it that way. However, she does have more to say about them when she gets to Bronzefield, where she does give the story behind some of the prisoners, such as Andrea, whose life has fallen apart after being attacked with a claw hammer and raped; I found that
Bronzefield (Andreas Praefcke/Wikimedia Commons)
story quite hard to read. She also meets women whose substance abuse problems bring them back into prison again and again, but often not for long enough for them to be offered effective help. For many women offenders, this is a very long-running story. As Brown told the Daily Mail’s Claudia Connell (June 23 2019): “One girl, an addict, told me it was her own mother who’d first injected her with heroin when she was 14 years old. She wanted her to earn money as a prostitute and controlling her with drugs was the best way to do it. It’s a part of society I didn’t even realise existed before I started working in prisons.” She also notes in the book that some women actually feel safer inside, having been victims of lifelong domestic violence. This is not surprising. The charity Refuge quotes a 2016 Office for National Statistics report that two women die from domestic abuse in the UK every week.

Brown says little about the prison system she serves, or about the failings of the particular institutions she has worked in. But it is not hard to find the figures from other sources. The Scrubs is a case in point. An Independent Monitoring Board report in 2017 found that 57 prison officers had recently left but only 21 had been replaced. It found that the staff generally had a positive attitude towards the prisoners and wanted to help them, but that there were insufficient resources, resulting in maintenance problems and unsanitary conditions, delays in medical treatment, and poor access for legal professionals to their clients in the prison. There were 40 to 50 violent incidents a month. Bronzefield, too, has hit the headlines now and then, notably after the death of prisoner Natasha Chin in 2016; she had been recovering from major surgery when readmitted to the prison, and the inquest found that prompt medical attention would probably have saved her. (It should be made clear that Brown was not at Bronzefield at the time; she joined it later that year.) 

No-one seems to care about prisons much; they’re where you dump people no-one likes or wants, and nobody seems responsible for sorting them out. One of the few to make noises about doing so was the last Minister of State for Prisons, Rory Stewart, but he was in post for only 16 months; his predecessor, Sam Gyimah, held the post for just two months longer. Both have now not only left government, but been thrown out of the ruling Conservative party altogether for voting against it over Brexit. In the midst of the current mess, the Natasha Chins of this world don’t count for much in the halls of the powerful.

But perhaps Brown shouldn’t be expected to say much about this. Unlike Gedney, she hasn’t yet retired from the system, and like most of us, she can’t just say what she likes about the institutions she works for, and is expected to uphold. She seems frank about what she herself has witnessed, and she clearly cares about her patients. Reading The Prison Doctor, I thought that she probably had made quite a few lives a bit easier, and I suspect she’s saved a few as well. Even so, in the end, I found Karen Gedney’s book the more moving of the two. She is both deeply humane, and a good writer. 30 Years Behind Bars is an uneven book. It loses focus a bit towards the end, and is probably longer than it needs to be. But if you read it, you will not forget it.

These books left me with two impressions. One is anger that prisons are used as underfunded dumping-grounds for those who, for whatever reason, cannot cope. To be sure, there are also people in there who are just plain evil (and one can’t forget that Gedney was raped). But most of the people Brown and Gedney encounter seem as much vulnerable as anything else, often the product of lives that went wrong at the beginning.

The second impression, however, is more positive. These two women were public servants (and Brown still is). These books do remind you that some people want things to be better and will work to that end, even if there’s a cost to themselves. It’s a feeling strengthened by looking at pictures of the two women; so far as I know they’ve never met and are not likely to, but there’s an odd similarity – they both seem tall, confident and very vital, and both look a lot younger than their years. They also look as if they like to laugh.

In a grim time, I find them rather reassuring.

Mike Robbins is the author of a number of fiction and non-fiction books. They can be ordered from bookshops, or as paperbacks or e-books from Amazon and other on-line retailers.

Monday, 15 July 2019

The endgame in the age of stupid

Could our society collapse? Yes, and it's happening right before our eyes. Here's how

Consider this as the plot of a science-fiction novel. A scientist discovers the secret of eternal life; Juvenex, a pill that rejuvenates. Its results are miraculous. It can reverse the ageing process; one’s hair recovers its cover, the skin its elasticity, the breasts their firmness. The British government wonders whether this is a good idea, knowing that the old, being young forever, will block and frustrate the truly young, and that there will be more and more mouths to feed. But the secret is out; the people clamour for Juvenex; and the government must fight an election against a Conservative opposition that promises to make the drug available. Of course the opposition win, and the Western world starts popping the pill like there is no tomorrow.

Then a Chinese government hostile to the West discovers that those who have taken the pill are sensitive to radioactivity, which reverses its effects and causes its users to age so rapidly that they become hideous. It starts an extended round of nuclear “testing”. The West spins downward to collapse.

This novel was real enough. It was  Not With a Bang (1965), and was by the British writer Chapman Pincher. who died in 2014 aged 100. Pincher was famous in the 1960s and 1970s as a journalist with a particular interest in defence and intelligence, and several of his books had quite an impact on the security world – especially Their Trade is Treachery (1981), in which he fingered a former director of MI5 as a Soviet spy. It is less well known that he wrote five or six novels; I don't think many people read them today. Not With a Bang is pretty much forgotten now, and appears to be out of print – a pity, for it is rather good.

The title itself is drawn from the closing stanza of T. S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men (1925):

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Was Eliot right? Pincher clearly thought so; in the closing scenes of Not With a Bang, thousands of people, grotesquely aged, bent and deformed, shuffle together into the sea. But Robert Frost, writing like Eliot in the wake of the First World War, was not so sure:

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice. From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.  

Eliot himself would say in old age that the hydrogen bomb had negated this closing stanza of The Hollow Men, and that he would not have written it again.  But of course we do not know how our world ends – with fire or ice, a bang or a whimper.

Or do we?

When the Soviet bloc collapsed in 1989 there was a tendency to believe that the capitalist, liberal democracy had triumphed and would now prevail everywhere; that this was, in Francis Fukuyama’s famous phrase, the end of history. At least one philosopher realised early on that this was pernicious nonsense and that, far from being freed from history, we should soon have a surfeit of it.  This was John Gray, then Professor of European Thought at LSE. In 2007 he published his book Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia.

The book propounds the thesis that our thought, at least in the West, has been shaped by religions – chiefly Christianity and Islam – that foresee some final apocalypse, and endpoint toward which human affairs progress. In Gray’s view, this has made Western thought teleological – that is to say, everything has a purpose that is defined by its ultimate end; and this perspective has pervaded not only religion, but the secular thought that has succeeded it. In this respect, he sees Marxism and Nazism as direct descendants of Christian thought. Teleology, in this view, is as likely to cause us to believe in a coming paradise as in an apocalypse.

One does not have to accept Gray’s theory wholesale to note the warning for us all in Black Mass: that if we are too sure of the future, too convinced that we are progressing towards an endpoint, we may give history a little push in that direction – and then find out it was the wrong one. The implication is that the pragmatist, with no theory of history, is the ultimate humanitarian. But for me there is an even more important implication: History is not fated to progress. It can go backwards.

Which brings us to the first of three important books. It's by Joseph Tainter.


Tainter is a Professor in the Department of Environment and Society at Utah State University. He trained as an anthropologist at Berkeley, obtaining his PhD in 1975. He has published widely (the publications list on his CV goes on for several pages). But he is best known for his landmark book The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988).

There have been plenty of books on the collapse of civilization. There is no mystery as to why, according to Tainter. “The image of lost civilizations is compelling,” he writes in Collapse. “Cities buried by drifting sands or tangled jungle ...The image is troublesome to all, , not only for the vast human endeavors that have mysteriously failed, but also for the enduring implications of these failures ...civilizations are fragile, impermanent things.”

And yet, argues Tainter, there has been relatively little study of how complex societies collapse. There has been a “seemingly inexorable” trend towards complexity, the growth of ever-larger settlements, and technology. We now understand more and more about the way this happens. “Yet the instances when this almost universal trend has been disrupted by collapse have not received a corresponding level of attention.” In fact, on the evidence of Tainter’s own literature review in Collapse, it has had quite a bit of attention. But that review does show how fragmented and, at times, subjective that study has been. Tainter’s aim is to present a dispassionate theory of collapse based on the evidence, and that he has done.

He begins by telling us what collapse looks like. He describes a number of collapses, from the Western Chou Empire to the Chacoans and Hohokam of New Mexico and Arizona respectively. At times he adds detail that the archaeologists have found; thus the end of the Casa Grande society in Mexico: “The dead were buried in city water canals and plaza drains.” He quotes Stanley Casson’s 1937 book, Progress and Catastrophe: An Anatomy of Human Adventure, in which the author talks of the sudden desolation in what had been Roman Britain after 400 AD. In his own time, Casson had also witnessed Istanbul after the collapse of Ottoman authority in 1918, with intermittent electricity, abandoned trams littering the streets, corpses at street corners, dead horses, no drains, unsafe water and “a police force which had largely become bandit, living on blackmail from citizens in lieu of pay ...All this was the result of only about three weeks’ abandonment by the civil authorities of their duties.” This last example, especially, encapsulates the fear we all feel about a sudden breakdown.

Tainter defines the collapse of a complex society. It occurs when there is “a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity.” This includes the loss of specialization – of individuals, but also of geographical entities. The loss of distinct occupations is important. Tainter states that  a hunter-gatherer society may contain only a few dozen “distinct social personalities” (in fact one suspects it is less). But a modern European census will, he says, recognize 10-20,000. This prompts questions about definitions and overlap; my cobbler also cuts keys. Conversely, the title of nurse practitioner could cover a number of specialized roles that are actually quite distinct from each other. Still, the point is clearly valid in principle. The Istanbul example is a case of individuals with specialized functions ceasing to perform them. It is also an example of something else: the loss of technology that breaks down, as Tainter puts it, “without the assistance of a bureaucracy that no longer exists.” (That may resonate when we look at the last of these three books, by Michael Lewis. )

Tainter makes a distinction between complexity and civilization; he insists that he is discussing the first and not the second. Indeed he regards the very word ‘civilization’ as a value-judgment, as as a strict rationalist, he does not like those. He is particularly rough on the historians Arnold Toynbee (A Study of History) and Oswald Spengler (The Decline of the West). “Such biases have no place in objective social sciences, and a concept [civilization] that is so laden with this problem is better abandoned or rethought.” In any case, he points out, the collapse of complexity need not be followed by the immediate disappearance of all cultural phenomena. But his own discussion of societal collapse suggests that it often is (in particular, in the case of the lowland Maya, which he discusses in detail). In any case, even if one accepts his statement at face value, the concept of ‘civilization’ – what constitutes, in a sense, almost the whole of our non-mechanical life outside the family unit – is widely accepted, even if badly defined. To most of us, a wholesale collapse in complexity does equate to a collapse of our civilization, however we may define it; everything meaningful will be lost, and this explains our fear of dystopia.

Moreover Tainter rarely acknowledges the human suffering that collapse will bring although the Casa Grande example alone, with the dead buried in drains, reminds us of the implications of his work. The collapse of the lowland Maya seems to have resulted in a population drop from around 3 million to about 450,000 in just 75 years.  In the last years, according to archaeologists who have examined the bones, the population was increasingly stressed and weak. Tainter does not say so, but this must have involved terrible suffering. No matter. Tainter is determined to be completely objective, and that does explain why his theory of collapse commands as much respect as it did when The Collapse of Complex Societies  was first published over 30 years ago.

That theory, crudely stated is this: As a society grows more complex, the cost of that complexity will rise. It is not hard to see why. Everyone who moves away from the land and into a specialized role (let us say, from peasant to stablehand, or from stablehand to clerk) moves farther from primary production, and is producing nothing directly. (Tainter defines that production, including food, as energy.) Moreover their training will become more specialized and thus more expensive. Meanwhile the cost of their subsistence falls upon those still producing that energy in the form of bread, pulses, whatever.

Of course the specialized roles do contribute to primary production; that clerk may be helping to maintain an irrigation system, or a doctor may cure maladies that would otherwise need palliative care, the cost of which would fall on everybody. This is because societies become complex in order to solve problems (such as irrigation or healthcare). But at some point the return on this specialization will fall relative to their cost. “Investment in sociopolitical complexity as a problem-solving response,” says Tainter, “often reaches a point of declining marginal returns.” He explains why in terms of what he refers to as an “energy subsidy”; as societies grow in complexity, the surplus production this requires will be gained through conquest of new land or through new sources of energy. These will be acquired in order of their ease of acquisition. The Romans naturally occupied the nearest and most fertile lands first; it was easier to bring grain from North Africa by boat than by land from inland Europe. And the English turned to coal when they had cut down the forests; as they dug deeper to get it, the steam engine became necessary to pump water out of the deep workings. And so to fracking and to nuclear energy, with the specialized roles they require; all are more complicated, and require more effort and training, per joule released than burning wood.

Complexity grows. The energy subsidy becomes harder to obtain. The rate of return is falling. At some point society will cease to support its complexity, because its costs have weakened the population (as in the case of the Maya) or because the state demands so much taxation from its people that they find its dissolution a rational choice. In fact the latter is Tainter’s view of the Roman Empire; the barbarians were not resisted, in Tainter’s view, because doing so had become so costly in taxes that the peasants thought them a better option; and they were, at the time, right. Civilization (or, for Tainter, complexity) does not “become decadent”. It simply fails to provide the return on investment that it needs to survive.

The Collapse of Complex Societies is an impressive book; a masterclass in clear thinking and expression, the collection and ordering of evidence, and the processing of facts so that they become knowledge. It should probably be compulsory reading for anyone about to embark on a Masters dissertation. But that does not mean we can’t pick holes in it if we choose. For one thing, to me Tainter is too dismissive of the environment as a cause of collapse. He does not ignore it, but says that environmental challenges are problems and complexity is a problem-solving strategy; in effect, if complexity can’t deal with (say) climate change, then it has failed to provide that marginal rate of return on investment. This may be too simple. Biophysical factors – desiccation, a vile winter, disease – can appear in forms that a society had no reason to expect. But it is true that the environment is one of many challenges that complexity is supposed to meet and a society may be judged by the extent to which it does so, a point well made in Jared Diamond’s much more recent book, Collapse.

Another point that Tainter does not address – and in this case, he does not raise it – is that a complex society may yield sufficient returns and yet not be perceived as doing so. It’s with that in mind that I move on to the second of these three books.


Tom Nichols is a lecturer in international and strategic affairs who taught for some years at two of America’s most exclusive institutions, Dartmouth College and later Georgetown University. He is now Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, a venerable institution in Newport, Rhode Island. He is a conservative, though with a small C; he never bought into Trump and finally left the Republican Party after the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. In 2017 he published The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. It’s just been republished in a new paperback edition.

The Death of Expertise is, in some respects, a good old-fashioned rant. The possession of facts does not, says Nichols, equate to knowledge, but too many people do not understand the difference. The Internet has driven some of this, making everyone an instant expert. It offers an “apparent shortcut to expertise”, but actually just a limitless supply of facts, which does not constitute knowledge. “The Internet,” says Nichols, “lets a billion flowers bloom, and most of them stink.”

Ignorance, says Nichols, has become hip. He cites the raw milk movement – people who demand untreated dairy products. He quotes the New Yorker (Dana Goodyear, April 2012) saying that untreated milk, which is often from pasture animals, is sometimes “richer and sweeter, and, sometimes, to retain a whiff of the farm – the slightly discomfiting flavor known to connoisseurs as ‘cow butt’.” As Nichols points out, the Centers for Disease Control reckon unpasteurized products are 150 times more likely to cause food-borne illnesses. Still, says Nichols, it’s a free country, and if adults wish to risk a trip to hospital for “the scent of a cow’s nether regions in their coffee”, that’s up to them. He also describes how Gwyneth Paltrow has encouraged people to steam their vaginas, which she claims (he says; I haven’t checked) cleans your uterus and helps balance your hormones. People have always been stupid, but the Net does not help; as he says, “in an earlier time, a sensible American woman would have had to exert a great deal of initiative to find out how a Hollywood actress parboils her plumbing.”

All of which is funny, but actually not new. People do not need the Internet to be daft. I remember, a few years before it arrived, there was a fad for colonic irrigation, which some very fashionable people did in London in about 1990. I asked a doctor friend what the health benefits were likely to be. “Peritonitis,” she said crisply. The following year I was travelling in Ecuador and found a craze for the so-called “pulsera de balance”, a wrist ornament that was supposed to deliver energy and equilibrium. In an earlier era the travel writer Norman Lewis and his brother-in law, passing through Madrid in 1934, decided to investigate a reported mania amongst madrileños for drinking animal blood. They visited a slaughterhouse, but were “deterred by a woman on her way out, made terrible by the smile painted by the blood on her lips.” We have never needed the Internet to be bizarre.

However, Nichols is not simply being (or at least, only being) a grumpy old man. There is a serious point here. “Laypeople must take more responsibility for their own knowledge, or lack of it; it is no excuse to claim that the world is too complicated and there are too many sources of information, and then to lament that policy is in the hands of faceless experts who disdain the public’s views.” This is not just about parboiling one’s plumbing; in ceasing to respect expertise, people no longer acknowledge that the world cannot be run without it. “It is ...ignorant narcissism for laypeople to believe that they can maintain a large and advanced nation without listening to the voices of those more educated and experienced than themselves.” This was directly reflected in the 2016 election result, according to Nichols. Trump’s election was, in his view, partly achieved by sneering at experts – which tapped into a long-standing American prejudice.

Why is this happening? Nichols has more than one target; the Internet, to be sure, but also a decline in academia. He opines that universities are not teaching critical thinking; that they are instead just peddling the “college experience”, part of the “commodification of education”. Given the mountain of debt with which students emerge from college, it is not surprising that they see themselves, sometimes, as customers, rather than realise they are there to learn intellectual rigour. This is also a problem in the UK, where the introduction of tuition fees means that students are, increasingly, being sold a product, and that they expect to get concrete promised returns afterwards, having paid for it. A recent £65,000 settlement won by a student in England because she felt her degree was not meaningful could be seen as a demonstration of this. Objective data on whether universities really are commodifying and abandoning the obligation to make people think is hard to find, and universities have always varied in quality. Still, Nichols may have a point – he talks, for example, about lecturers being evaluated the way a Yelp review is done of a restaurant, and it is by definition absurd to have situations where all the students are above average.

Nichols also blames the media for failing to check facts and for spreading disinformation through sheer laziness. The classic case he describes is a  story that claimed new research had found that chocolate helps weight loss. There is of course no real evidence for anything of the kind. The story had been cooked up by a science writer, John Bohannon, to demonstrate bad science and how easily its “results” could be accepted. The institute claimed to have done the research did not exist. But the journalists who spread the story did nothing to check (“I Fooled Millions into thinking Chocolate Helps Weight Loss. Here’s how”). It wasn’t difficult because journalists are lazy and want a ready-made story.

I have seen this myself. Early in 2019 a right-wing, anti-European British MP, Daniel Kawczynski, tweeted angrily that Britain had received no aid at the end of WWII – “No Marshall aid, unlike Germany; nothing,” he wrote. I knew this was not true, and it took me seconds to confirm that Britain actually got the largest single share of Marshall Aid, some 26%. I tweeted back to this effect. I was genuinely angry that an MP should spread disinformation in this way, and my tweet was perhaps a little rougher than it could have been. Hundred of people picked it up. The next day I found that a British paper had made a story out of the the original tweet and my response. It was a “news” story that I could have written myself in five minutes. Moreover the paper in question never links to its sources. Not all journalists are like this, of course – one could cite much better ones like Carole Cadwalladr and her long dig into the funding of the Brexit campaign, or Will Saletan of, who wrote in depth about GMOs. But Nichols is right; the media are part of the problem.

Academics get a battering as well. Nichols devotes a chapter to saying that experts themselves have been producing research that cannot be replicated (there is a “replicability crisis” going on, especially in some areas of the social sciences). There is great pressure on academics to publish, which does not help. Neither are research journals always so rigorous as they should be. I cannot help wondering how Andrew Wakefield’s notorious MMR-and-autism study was published by the The Lancet, but it would at least not have done it had it suspected that data had been falsified. Other journals might not have been so scrupulous.

All of this has helped build public distrust of “experts”. But perhaps the most important factor is one that Nichols mentions only briefly. He quotes political scientist Richard Hofstadter, writing in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), as follows: “In the original American dream, the omnicompetence of the common man was fundamental and indispensable… Today, he knows that he cannot even make his breakfast without using devices ...which expertise has put at his disposal; and ...he reads about a whole range of issues and acknowledges, if he is candid with himself, that he has not acquired competence to judge most of them.” Hofstadter said that this complexity induced feelings of helplessness and anger among a people that knew they were at the mercy of smarter elites. “Once,” says Hofstaedter, “the intellectual was gently ridiculed because he was not needed; now he is fiercely resented because he is needed too much.”

This is a rich vein that Nichols could have mined much more deeply than he does. If people seek to abandon complexity, could it be as much because of this as because of Tainter’s declining marginal rate of return on it? As Nichols himself says, Trump’s election was partly achieved by sneering at experts, which tapped into a long-standing American prejudice. “Trump’s eventual victory ...was ...undeniably one of the most recent – and one of the loudest – trumpets sounding the impending death of expertise.” And he adds elsewhere: “It is ...ignorant narcissism for laypeople to believe that they can maintain a large and advanced nation without listening to the voices of those more educated and experienced than themselves ....The celebration of ignorance cannot launch communications satellites ...or provide for effective medications.”

Which brings us to Michael Lewis.


Lewis is a successful writer and journalist with 18 non-fiction books to his credit. Originally from New Orleans, he graduated in art history and wanted to pursue it as a career, but found there was no money in it so became a bond salesman in the City of London instead. After a few years he returned to the States and became a financial journalist. Now in his late fifties, he has written widely on Wall Street, the roots of the financial crisis and subjects as diverse as technology and baseball. He has a particular interest in risk.

In 2017, he wrote a series of pieces for Vanity Fair on the transition to the Trump administration, highlighting the Department of Energy, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Commerce. In 2018 these pieces matured into a book, The Fifth Risk. It looks at the experiences of the civil servants in those departments as Trump took over. This sounds like a rather dull book. It isn’t. Lewis has a clear, deadpan approach; he nowhere tells the reader what to think, but you are left in no doubt, at the end, of what you have learned.

In essence, Lewis describes an administration with no interest whatever in the government machine and no understanding of what it does. Normally, a candidate recruits a transition team that will base itself in Washington in the later stages of a campaign, preparing policy and choosing and screening the several thousand political appointees that will need to be put into the various departments during the period between the election and the inauguration. Of Trump’s team, only Governor Chris Christie understood how important this would be, and how much work would be involved. Trump himself did not, and only reluctantly permitted Christie to set up such a team.

Three days after the election, Christie and much of his team were fired, and the files and references they had collected were junked. Over the next two months, the senior civil servants at the three departments waited for the Trump transition teams to arrive. Almost none of them did, leaving the machinery of government rudderless. The staff at Energy were taken aback when, quite simply, no-one turned up. Two weeks after the election, they read in the papers that one Thomas Pyle, an energy-company lobbyist who had worked for the Koch brothers, was to lead the transition team at Energy. Pyle visited once, briefly, but then stayed away. He eventually sent a request for a list of officials who had been involved in climate meetings. He then disappeared. Meanwhile the Chief Financial Officer of the Environmental Protection Agency under Obama, Joe Hezir, received no instructions as to whether he should go or stay. “Not knowing what to do, but without anyone to replace him, the CFO of a $30 billion operation just up and left,” says Lewis. Even six months after Trump took office, there was still no-one to run the federal disasters management agency, FEMA; the Transportation Security Administration (TSA); the Centers for Disease Control; or the Patent Office. When the senior appointees finally did appear, they seemed mainly chosen to dismantle their departments and had little interest in understanding their work.

Having told us all this, Lewis then briefs us on the wide range of things these department actually do – far more than we suppose. The US Government’s two million employees manage a portfolio of risks that no smaller entity could manage. They include the obvious ones, such as financial crises, terrorist attacks and hurricanes. But they also include those we are less likely to think of, such as a prescription drug suddenly proving to have been addictive and dangerous, and killing thousands of people a year (Lewis does not  say so, but he is clearly thinking of the opioid crisis). Other risks, Lewis adds, feel unreal – a virus that kills millions, economic inequality that causes violence, and so on. “Maybe the least visible risks,” he adds, are “of things not happening that, with better government, might have happened. A cure for cancer, for instance.”

What Lewis is describing is complexity, and the many skills on which it draws. As we’ve seen, Tainter pointed out that a  modern European census will recognize 10-20,000 distinct roles. I also quoted above Nichols’s statement that: “The celebration of ignorance cannot launch communications satellites ...or provide for effective medications.” But what this complexity also does is manage risk.

Lewis interviews the former Chief Risk Officer of the Department of Energy and is told that there were five key risks that the Department must manage. The first four are nuclear weapons, loss of or accident with; the nuclear threat from North Korea; likewise from Iran; and threats to the electric grid. The fifth risk, which gives the book its title, is project management. Lewis does not explain the latter; he is a show-not-tell writer and  takes us instead to one of the DoE’s biggest projects, the Hanford nuclear facility in the Pacific Northwest. In 1943 the US army evicted the population of a large area in eastern Washington State and transformed it into a nuclear facility. Between 1943 and 1987, when it closed, Hanford created two-thirds of the US’s plutonium and supplied the material for 70,000 nuclear weapons. It is now being cleaned up. According to Lewis, the DoE spends $3 billion, or 10% of its budget, into the place. Asked what it would take to clean it up, the former Chief Risk Officer tells Lewis: “A century and a hundred billion dollars.”

“The people who created the plutonium for the first bombs, in the 1940s and early 1950s, were understandably in too much of a rush to worry about what might happen afterward,” says Lewis. “They simply dumped 120 million gallons of high-level waste, and another 444 billion gallons of contaminated liquid, into the ground. ...They dug forty-two miles of trenches to dispose of solid radioactive waste – and left no good records of what’s in the trenches. ...Beneath Hanford, a massive underground glacier of radioactive sludge is moving slowly but relentlessly toward the Columbia River.”

In short, complexity still generates that rate of return, for its loss would be a catastrophe.

What has changed is not that rate of return but our perception of it. Joe Klein, reviewing The Fifth Risk in The New York Times in October 2018, asked whether we have: “Grown too lazy and silly and poorly educated to sustain a working democracy? We live in a moment when tribal bumper stickers — both left and right — pass for politics, when ignorance and grievance drive policy. The federal government exists at a level of complexity most people just can’t be bothered to understand. We have little idea what it does, only the vague sense that it doesn’t do anything very well.”

Richard Hofstadter was right; we resent our lack of control of complexity. But we cannot do without it, and if resentment and willful ignorance make us try, we will find out why. Especially if we live near Hanford. That underground glacier of radioactive sludge could be our future; this is the way the world ends – not with a bang but with a peevish, agonised, long-drawn-out whimper.

But it hasn’t happened yet, and I do not believe in any form of predestination. I began this piece with a quotation from T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men. Let’s end with one from his Little Gidding (1942):

Sin is Behovely, but
All shall be well, and
All manner of thing shall be well …

The words are not Eliot’s; they are those of the 14th-century Julian of Norwich, a woman who witnessed a savage age (she lived through the Black Death), but in whose teachings God is seen as ultimately loving and merciful. These words tell us that sin – by which, it seems, she meant all bad things – is necessary (‘behovely’) for our self-knowledge, but that God will forgive all. So perhaps that radioactive sludge, or some other avoidable disaster, will be our wake-up call; and “all manner of thing” may yet be well. After all, Tainter is describing a mechanism; he at no point says that it is our certain fate. It is for us to create our future, and we can do so.

Mike Robbins’s books are available in e-book or paperback from most online retailers, including Amazon (UK and US).

Thursday, 13 June 2019

The water jump

A hundred years ago today, a large biplane lumbered into the air at St John’s, Newfoundland. Sixteen hours later, the Old and the New World were much closer

It wasn’t a great year. The First World War had stopped, but no peace treaty had yet been signed; meanwhile fighting continued in much of Europe as new countries were born and quarrelled with each other. Finland was recovering from a terrible civil war; that in Russia was at its height. In Hungary, the Soviet regime of Béla Kun would hold power for five months, during which it managed to fight two of its neighbours before being destroyed by a third. In Ireland the War of Independence began. In India, British troops killed hundreds of demonstrators in the Amritsar massacre. Even if you dodged all these, you weren’t safe; a global flu pandemic was in progress. It reached every country on earth, and is thought to have killed up to 5% of the world’s population. In fact, 1919 was a bit shit.

But even in a year like that, good things can happen. Just before 4pm on Saturday, June 14, a Vickers Vimy biplane bomber taxied out for takeoff in a field at St John’s, Newfoundland.

Named after Vimy, the site of a major battle in France, the type was big for 1919 – 43ft long with a 68ft wingspan, and a takeoff weight of some 11,000lb (about 5,000 kg). It had two 20-litre V12 Rolls-Royce engines, rated at 360 HP each, and they must have made a noise to awaken the dead. They would need every one of those 720 HP, for they were taking off into a fierce wind, the direction of which was forcing them to take off uphill; moreover they were laden with extra fuel, as the journey ahead would be nearly 2,000 miles, over twice the type’s normal range, and the bomb racks had been replaced with extra fuel tanks. A large crowd was watching. What happened next would be described much later and with, one suspects, some embellishment, by American journalist Chelsea Fraser in his book Heroes of the Air (1937):

For 100, 200, 300, 400, 500 feet the plane taxied along, and as the watchers saw the obstacles in front drawing alarmingly near a look of greatest anxiety filled their eyes, and, indeed, two or three feminine shrieks could be heard. ...Twenty-five feet more and the daylight showed under the four wheels. The aviators heard a cheer from the crowd, and their own hearts lightened.

One doubts if the two men heard anything of the sort above the racket from the twin V12s; in fact they couldn’t hear each other, and would communicate in writing in the air, despite sitting right beside each other. Author David Beaty describes the moment with less hyperbole in his wonderful book The Water Jump (1976):

A crowd had assembled expecting to see them kill themselves. ...The Vimy lumbered up the hill in a strong crosswind, skidded round some rocks, and lurched unsteadily into the uneven air. Once airborne, the bomber immediately dropped into a valley, our of sight of the spectators who were convinced it had crashed.

But it hadn’t. The plane continued westwards, it being too dangerous to turn the heavily-laden aircraft at low altitude over land; but once out over Conception Bay, it turned onto a new course of 124o magnetic – into the open Atlantic. Alcock and Brown were on their way.


There were very good reasons for bridging the “water jump”. The First World War had seen unrestricted submarine warfare, a quite new phenomenon; at its height in 1917, it had posed a real threat to Britain’s food supplies. The British were not the only country to be aware of the strategic implications. On August 25 1917, the U.S. Navy’s Chief Constructor, Rear Admiral David W. Taylor, wrote to a colleague that the airplane was the means by which “the submarine menace can be abated ...The ideal solution would be big flying-boats which would [save] the valuable time now lost in delivering aircraft to European waters by means of ocean-going freighters.”

Admiral Taylor himself had encouraged the development of just such a flying-boat, the Curtiss NC (for ‘Navy Curtiss’). In early 1919 four NCs were readied for a crossing attempt at their base in Far Rockaway on the edge of New York City. One was quickly cannibalised for spares, but the remaining three headed to Newfoundland, arriving there on May 15 1919. Their plan was to fly from Newfoundland to Plymouth in England via the Azores and Lisbon. One plane landed on the water and foundered when taken in tow, while another suffered mechanical difficulties and taxied the last 200 miles to the Azores. But the third plane, the NC-4, reached the Azores, and went on via Lisbon to Plymouth.

The NC-4

This was not a non-stop transatlantic flight, and besides, this operation was a very different proposition from Alcock and Brown’s; the Navy had no less than 60 destroyers strung out across the Atlantic to aid the flying-boats if they came down on the water, as two of them did. There were also two support ships with fuel and spares. Even so, the achievement should not be underestimated. Far from being overkill, the expedition demonstrated the American genius for technology and organization that, 50 years later, would take them to the moon. Moreover, the huge support operation cannot negate the fact that the NC-4 had completed a 1,200-mile nonstop leg over water, much of it in darkness. Its commander, Lieutenant Commander Albert Cushing Read, an Annapolis graduate and career naval officer, and his crew later received the Congressional Gold Medal. NC-4 can be seen to this day in the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Florida.


For all its skill and courage, the US Navy’s expedition hadn’t been a proper, continuous crossing and had not demonstrated the viability of transatlantic air travel. But it would clearly not be long before someone did. The US Navy thought the British would pull out all the stops to get across the Atlantic first, and as Beaty points out in The Water Jump, this was a reasonable supposition – especially as it was not the US but the Brits who had the world’s largest flying-boat (the five-engined Felixstowe Fury). But the British government did nothing, apart from – as Beaty says – “rather grudgingly” providing meteorological support in Newfoundland. (This was then still a British colony; it did not federate with Canada until 1948.) Everything was left to the private sector.

But there was an incentive. In 1913, the Daily Mail had offered £10,000 (then about $50,000) for the first non-stop crossing of the Atlantic. The war over, it had renewed its offer. By May 1919 – the month the NC-4 crossed via the Azores – Newfoundland was a hive of aeronautical activity. In mid-May, Australian pilot Harry Hawker and his navigator Kenneth Mackenzie Grieve had made a determined attempt at the Atlantic crossing in a purpose-built aircraft, the Sopwith Atlantic. The latter’s single engine proved its downfall; its failure brought the Atlantic down in the Atlantic. Hawker and Grieve were rescued by a passing Danish steamer. But they had got within 750 miles of Ireland, and while their courageous attempt did not succeed, it was clearly proof of concept. Sadly, Hawker himself would be killed n a crash only two years later, though not before co-founding what became Hawker Aircraft.

Meanwhile, a team from the Handley Page company had arrived with a disassembled Handley Page V/1500, a massive bomber with a maximum take-off weight of some 30,000 lb – three times that of the Vimy – and four, instead of two, Rolls-Royce Eagle engines rated at 375HP each. The Handley Page team was led by Admiral Mark Kerr, a distinguished naval officer who had been at the Battle of Omdurman. He had a long-standing interest in aviation, and had been a wartime proponent of a large bomber fleet. The massive V/1500 was conceived as part of such a force, but it was too late. In November 1918 three of them set out on their first mission, to bomb Berlin – only to be flagged down as they taxied out, and told of the Armistice. Only about 40 V/1500s were ever completed.

Massive: A Handley Page V/1500

Still, at the turn of the year a V/1500 had made the first through flight to the Indian Empire, landing in what is now Pakistan in January 1919 after a month-long journey. Now there was another V/1500 in Newfoundland, ready to scoop the Mail’s coveted prize. The Handley Page team searched for a suitable landing strip, a more difficult task than it might seem; even with four huge V12 engines, the V/1500 would need plenty of space to get its mighty 33,000lb bulk off the ground. But in due course a suitable place was found at Harbor Grace, some way from St John’s, and the team set about assembling the aircraft.

Unfortunately for Handley Page, Kerr, ever the naval officer, was a perfectionist. Every nut and bolt must be perfect. And by the time the V/1500 neared readiness, a small team had arrived from Vickers; they had travelled with the team on the Mauretania, docking at Halifax. The team included John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown.


Alcock was 27, Brown 31. Both were British – Alcock had been born in Manchester, Brown in Glasgow – although Brown’s parents had been American. Both had flown in the war, Alcock as a pilot and Brown as an observer. Both had been shot down and taken prisoner, Brown by the Germans and Alcock by the Turks. After the war Alcock had approached Vickers with a proposal to fly the Atlantic, and the company had been impressed with his enthusiasm. When Brown also came looking for a job, his knowledge of navigation prompted Vickers to assign him as Alcock’s navigator.

The two men were different in aspect. As Beaty puts it: “Alcock looked like a big and smiling farmer’s boy, while the navigator Brown was studious and solemn – again, the extrovert pilot and the introvert navigator, typical temperaments for these two professions throughout the years ahead.” Beaty’s book includes a picture that bears this out. It shows them in their flying gear just before takeoff. Alcock looks bluff and cheerful, while Brown, a little smaller, looks apprehensive. Oddly, they both look a little like Michael Palin.

Brown may have been right to look worried. They had done little testing, anxious to get in the air before the Handley Page team, whose plans were well advanced. Not least of their problems had been finding flat ground from which to take off. A proposal to Admiral Kerr that they use the aerodrome he had prepared was fruitless; Kerr demanded half the cost of its construction, and insisted that they not use it until the V/1500 had taken off on its crossing attempt. He was, perhaps, within his rights; Handley Page had a lot invested, and according to a 1955 article by Graham Wallace in the Canadian magazine Maclean’s, it had taken 100 men to clear the Harbor Grace ground. But it was a blow for the Vickers team. Wallace recounts how Alcock “immediately began his search for an airfield for the Vimy, which needed a clear run of five hundred yards. But the land around St. John’s was ill suited—rocky, barren, swampy or covered with forest. Alcock drove around hopelessly in a rented car, and got glummer each day.”

Brown (left) and Alcock in Newfoundland, May 28 1919

Alcock had to make do with a site at Quidi Vidi on the edge of St John’s itself. Even this would not suffice; they could assemble and test the aircraft there, but it was not suitable for taking off with a full load (which would include 870 gallons of petrol). Eventually a contractor offered them the use, for free, of a large stretch of land – what Beaty calls “a large meadow balanced on the side of a hill with a swamp at the bottom”. Meanwhile the US Navy team had departed for the Azores from nearby Trepassey Bay.

Still, in due course the Vimy, disassembled and in crates, arrived at St John’s on the SS Glendevon, and the Vickers team assembled it as quickly as they could and made their first test flight, according to Chelsea Fraser’s account, on June 9. It was not unsuccessful, but Alcock landed with a long list of minor things that needed to be attended to. His mood will not have been improved when, the following day (according to Fraser), the huge V/1500 flew over Quidi Vidi and soared off above St John’s.

June 14 dawned blustery. Fraser (who may have been exaggerating) says there was a “40-knot half-gale”. It was not propitious. However, Alcock was convinced the V/1500 was about to go. In fact, it is not clear that it was; Admiral Kerr was fussing over every detail. But the Mail’s prize, and the glory that went with it, were too big to risk. At 3.50pm the Vimy’s port engine was run up; the starboard followed 12 minutes later, and at 4.10 the Vimy began its takeoff run. One of the great flights of history was under way.


One problem appeared very quickly. The Vimy was carrying radio equipment, and would need it both to report its position and to obtain weather reports from ships ahead of them. The latter was crucial, as weather forecasting was far poorer than it is now, and little data would be available in advance. As the aircraft swung over Conception Bay and picked up its course for Ireland, Brown tapped out the message: All well and started. Not long afterwards he became aware that the transmitter was not working. Its power came from a small propeller that rotated in the slipstream and drove a generator. This was not visible from inside the aircraft, but Brown knew it could be seen from the wing. If Chelsea Fraser is to be believed, Brown climbed out on the wing to have a look, grasping one of the struts between the engine and the wing. He found the generator propeller to have lost three of its four blades. This also disabled the headphone system the two men used to talk to each other, so they would now have to communicate with scribbled notes. (One can guess the first one was from Brown and read, “It’s f***ed” – or the 1919 equivalent.)

Neither was this to be the only problem. Both men had electrically-heated flying suits, a necessity in an open cockpit in the North Atlantic, but the accumulator used to provide them with power was insufficient, and some way into the flight the power failed. To add joy, part of an exhaust pipe fractured, spitting flames back over the rigging; there was little to be done about this, and Alcock decided they were not in immediate danger. But there was one big piece of good news; the wind was on their side. The Vimy had a top speed of 120 mph, but Alcock had decided to throttle back and fly at 90 mph, to save the engines; after all they would have to run continuously for 18 hours, far longer than would normally be expected. However, a tailwind gave them a cruising speed near the Vimy’s maximum. In this they were lucky; an early aviator could find themselves flying into a headwind and standing nearly still. If this happened when they were too far from land to turn back, they would have no choice but to ditch in the sea.

As in all early long-distance flights, navigation was a major problem. A small error could take the aircraft a long way adrift over such a long distance; if unlucky, they could pass north of Ireland and not make landfall. Brown carried a sextant with a spirit-level, knowing that he would rarely see the horizon. But he would need star shots every now and then. A few hours after nightfall, finding themselves in dense fog, and needing to know where they were, they were forced to climb to 12,000 ft so that Brown could fix their position. This was way above the normal service ceiling for the Vimy. Brown got his fix, but found that they were north of their planned route, suggesting that the wind had blown them off track; it became urgent to know by how much, but for that they would need to see the sea so the whitecaps would give them some idea of the wind speed and direction, enabling Brown to calculate the drift. So from 12,000 ft they came down nearly to sea level, but found themselves in fog almost until zero feet and narrowly missed flying into the ocean.

Later in the night they flew into a hailstorm that lasted four hours. Poor visibility continued, making it hard for Alcock to know the angle at which he was flying. This is fatal in the air, and a pilot who is thus disoriented may not know whether they are flying straight and level. They may dive steeply, or pull back so far on the stick that the aircraft stalls. In our own time, a faulty attitude direction indicator caused the crash of a Panamanian airliner in 1992, while inadequate information on the angle of attack contributed to the Air France disaster in 2009. In 1919, a pilot had little to tell him what the aircraft was doing in zero visibility. Towards the end of the night Alcock flew into a dense bank of fog, and got the impression that he was diving; the corrective action he took put the aircraft into a spin. Beaty explains what happened next:

And then they left the cloud as abruptly as they had entered it. A hundred feet from the wave crests, Alcock caught sight of the horizon. Immediately he regained his sense of balance and brought the Vimy out of the spin. At full throttle, the bomber skimmed straight and level just above the sea – now pointing westwards back to Newfoundland.

Alcock turned back towards Ireland and climbed to 6,500 ft. But their problems were not over; the weather worsened again, and Brown was forced to wing-walk once more in order to clear ice from the instruments.

Every now and then Alcock would take a break. In common with some other large early aircraft, the Vimy had a steering wheel rather than a joystick, and he had equipped this with rubber clamps so that he could fasten it in place and use his hands for something else. Brown would then pass him sandwiches and, according to Fraser, ale (Wallace says it was whisky, either neat or in coffee). As day broke, they realised that they must be nearing Ireland. Then, as Brown would write later:

Alcock grabbed my shoulder, twisted me round, beamed excitedly and pointed ahead and below. ...I followed ...his outstretched forefinger, and barely visible through the mist, it showed me two tiny specks of – land. This happened at 8.15 am on June 15.

They had made landfall pretty much where they had intended to, near Clifden in Connemara. Brown’s navigation had been spot-on. They had flown 1,980 miles in 16 hours and 12 minutes.


Alcock put the aircraft down in what looked like a meadow, realising too late that it was actually a bog. The aircraft sank into its axles and tipped over its nose, causing some damage. Alcock and Brown were saved by their belts, and clambered out, dazed and deafened but unhurt. The Mail prize was theirs. King George V, told of their arrival as he left church in London, promptly wired his congratulations; these were followed, very soon afterwards, by a pair of knighthoods. The V/1500 crew, still in Newfoundland, realised they were beaten; there would be no knighthoods for them. Kerr’s navigator, Trygve Gran, whose English was not perfect, cabled to his new wife, an actress: “Sorry you aren’t a lady”.


Sir John Alcock did not enjoy his fame for long. He remained with Vickers as a test pilot. Less than six months later, in December 1919, he took off for Paris in a new type of amphibian, the Vickers Viking, which he intended to land on the Seine as part of an international air show. Caught in fog, he crashed attempting to land near Rouen; he survived the crash but died before he could be taken to hospital. He was buried in the Southern Cemetery in Manchester, the city of his birth. Sir Arthur Whitten Brown joined an industrial and electrical engineering company. In World War Two he served in the RAF’s Training Command, but his health deteriorated, and he was forced to resign his commission. He was further affected by the loss of his son, who was killed when his Mosquito aircraft crashed in the Netherlands in 1944. Brown’s health never recovered and he died in October 1948, aged 62. But they had shrunk the world. 

And the Vimy? It was repaired, and donated to the nation. In December 1919, three days before his death, Alcock attended its unveiling at its new home, the Science Museum in South Kensington. If one wants, one may see it there still, and marvel at the day, 100 years ago, when two young men defied a dreadful year to play their part in the human adventure.

Mike Robbins is the author of a number of fiction and non-fiction books. They can be ordered from bookshops, or as paperbacks or e-books from Amazon and other on-line retailers.