Fighter pilot, Royal Navy 1945, Hydrographer Iraq 1947-52 India 1952-53, Canadian Hydrographic Arctic explorer 1953-1960, Writer-producer Canadian National Film Board 1961-72, Freelance journalist, audio-visual producer 1972-2009, National Press Club of Canada 1961 - 2006

Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Medieval Theory of Flight


A Rambling Discourse re Veracity and Historical Oddities


I hate bloopers. Especially at the start of a promising book or other piece of writing that one hopes to enjoy reading and possibly learning from. One glaring error in the first paragraph, or on an early page, ruins my faith in anything that may follow.

This diatribe comes after reading an excerpt, Day of The Longbow, presenting: Agincourt: The King, the Campaign, and the Battle, a book written by historian Juliet Barker.

For right in the first paragraph she, or perhaps her reviewer, places the scene of battle in ‘north-eastern’ France. In fact Azincourt (as it now appears in atlases) is just 25 miles from the English Channel.

Ok, so we’re all used to errors in newspapers, and not just common typos but obvious errors concerning what should be well-known facts, partly because we know that common or garden journalists are usually in a rush, and also some, o.k. many, as in all professions, are often wanting in basic knowledge.

But anyone who produces a book or scholarly article usually has plenty of time to check all their factual details.

Newspapers can just blatantly fluff away their errors by stating them to be “...due to an editing error”. This is an obvious giggle. It’s like a doctor who cuts off the wrong leg of a patient later saying it was "...caused by a surgical error". Or the captain of a ship run aground on a rock excusing it all as "...an error in navigation".

But author Juliet (may peace be upon her) prods awake my scepticism again when she states that 5,000 or more English and Welsh archers at the battle of Agincourt, sent a hail of arrows up every six seconds so that the sky was "...literally darkened over, as though a cloud had passed before the face of the sun".

Wow! Or, “incroyable”, as the Gallic recipients of that barrage must have cried. “All them blinkin’ fl├Ęches”, they’d have shouted out loudly in their coarse countryside French. “Cor! Lummy! Lookit 'em all! They’re literally blotting out the sun. Wow!”. Not, sort of, or, as though, would they have cried, but ‘literally’ —actually blotting the sun out.

Think about it. You’ve got a shower of five thousand ratings with bows-and arrows. Were all these guys stuck together in a great big lummocky ungainly lump? Or were they spread out in a regimented line abreast and say twenty ranks deep? If so they’d have stretched for about 1,500 feet lengthways by 200 feet deep.

Look, a guy with a longbow and a big quiver full of very sharp pointy sticks and also hefting his reserve weapon of sword or axe, needs at least five feet of elbow-room-clearance from his mates on each side. He also needs about five feet clearance fore and aft so as to be able to shoot his arrows above the head of the guy in front without doing his comrade’s noddle or ear lobes any collateral damage.

So if their arrows were say half-an-inch in diameter and, together with their metal points and goose feather flights, three feet-and a couple of inches long and, if they were all arranged tightly together like a single layer of sardines packed in a tin ...(Jeez! How I miss those lovely Portuguese sardines in olive oil that the British Marx and Sparx chain of stores sold before they closed up all their outlets over here. They were so delectable and...) Oh! I’m sorry. I got sidelined a bit. Where was I? Yeah! In such a case (we’re back to our bows and arrers investigation again) the potential total shadow-casting-area of all those arrows stuck so tightly together would have been about 729 square feet, or a square measuring 27’ x 27’ — around the size of a rather largish Persian carpet. That’s if the archers were all exactly side by side and tightly together.

Ok. I’m no toxopholist or toxophilite, so maybe their arrows were three-quarters-of-an-inch in diameter. But I think not. Let’s say a more likely, but still hefty, five-eighths, making the carpet somewhat larger at about 30’ x 30’. All right? But only if all their shafts were let loose strictly simultaneously while all hands, I mean bowmen, were stuck cheek-to-cheek very, very closely together — in fact too closely to operate or even breathe. An impossible event which anyway, would, could, only happen with the first such a bunched up fictitious salvo.

Subsequent salvos of any kind would have been shot very intermittently with just 1,000 arrows being released simultaneously in any one single second of elapsed time at intervals of anywhere from one to six seconds, depending on how soon and how much out of synch the 5,000 bowmen had by then become. Thus providing a fairly open pattern even if all hands aimed for the same very small part of the opposing force. (Switching back to sardines again for a moment, I bought some tins of my second favourites, those classic Norwegian 'Millionaires—Fish they are very Small’—brand, in olive oil, which I can remember liking ever since I was a small boy in the 1930s. So I checked the wrapping to see if it now said ‘Product of China’ in tiny letters somewhere. But no, it did not. Instead it said: ‘Product of Scotland’. Imagine! Norwegian sardines from Scotland? And their 'Billionaire' sister tins of sardines state they are ‘Product of Poland’. What the heck is going on? And they don't seem to have that wonderful taste they had fifty years ago).

Those deadly English and Welsh arrows (we’re back to the main story again) packed enough kinetic energy to pierce right through the hardened metal armour worn by the attacking enemy knights and inflict grievous, incapacitating and fatal wounds. One pities all the poor innocent horses that must have taken the brunt of the carnage.

Of course, it must have been a very shocking and scary spectacle...(no, no, no! It was not scary finding the sardines were Scottish and Polish, stupid, that was just surprising —please pay attention. I’m back to the Agincourt archers again —it was their very, very effective showers of arrows that must have been scary for the Frenchies)...with 5,000 bow strings going twang, twang, twang, twang, twonk (woops!—that last one is a misfire) in near unison followed by the swishing tearing-of-paper sound of thousands of arrows zipping over in the initial loud swoosh-swooshing wave, flying in a graceful but deadly parabolic swarm, each impelled violently through the air by a longbow’s ‘muzzle’ velocity of perhaps more than two hundred feet per second. Yeah, being the target of that must have been very scary.


But what a stirring piece William Shakespeare wrote when nearly two centuries later he attributed the following wonderful words as being spoken by King Henry V as he made ready for battle against a foe five times superior in numbers, on that famed October morning in 1415:


We few, we happy few, we band of brothers, For he today who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother, Be he ne'er so vile, this day shall gentle his condition, and gentlemen in England now abed shall think themselves acursed they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap whilst any speaks, that fought with us upon St. Crispin's day!


And that’s such an intriguing little observation in the middle of Henry’s imagined soliloquy, that bit about: ...and gentlemen in England now abed... because in those days, when there were no really reliable timepieces and naturally no agreed upon international time zones, and when I suppose all hands just used the hazy shadows cast by sundials in their particular vicinity to decide roughly (no corrections for the Solar Equation of Time at that historical time —1415) when their local noonday sun was passing overhead. This, combined with the fact that slow rates of travel by horse and sailing vessel, would have also made ‘jet lag’ quite indiscernible to the traveller.

Yet over in France on an early morning in October, during an era when most people sort of still believed the world to be flat, Shakespeare’s King Henry surmised that back in limey land, just thirty or so miles distant to the west across the Channel, most of the populace would still be in bed. A surmise further complicated by another fact: Agincourt is only six minutes earlier in solar time than the spot where 500 years later the Windmill Theatre near Piccadilly Circus would arise to timidly stage artistic, motionless-living-statue, nudie-tableaus, and so do battle with the morality and ethics as laid down by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office...

(Look here, Ough, for goodness sake stick to your main story, no more wanderings off. Try to keep your blog blatherings, at least somewhat tidy. — Ok! Ok!. I'm sorry)

...whereas the west coast French port of Brest is about twenty solar minutes later in time than where those delicately prurient wartime goings on were offered close by the ‘dilly — thus just about sharing the same local time as sleepy Cornwall, home to good folks even more likely to be found still abed at Henry's call.

So did Henry, or rather his poetic stand-in, Willie Shakespeare, have a wonky sense of longitudinal-time differences or did they just foster the well-founded opinion that most Englishmen were lazy sluggards.

And while talking about civil time matters, I recall during the war (no, no, not the Agincourt one, I mean our war — WWII) we in UK went on double British Summer Time (DBST) in order to lessen our chances of being bombed by the Nazis before having listened to the nine o'clock news on the radio. But I cannot remember when it began. Probably when the first German early night time air raids started in late 1940. I remember as a 14-year-old, living a scant more than a half-dozen miles northeast of the Windmill theatre, flying my model aircraft outdoors at 11pm on summer evenings in bright daylight. So it must have begun in 1940. Did DBST apply all year round? I guess so. But cannot now remember.

Why, you ask, do I go into such detail in pondering such ancient matters with so little perceived consequence. Because as I’ve explained before, it’s my personal therapy for warding off attacks by our common enemy —that rotten old Assayed Al-Ziyma guy. Also I like drawing little pictures on the computer. And, also, like, I’m a proponent of accuracy in writing stuff, and have pretensions as an historian.

(Ed. note: Assayed sort of means ‘Mister’. I think).


Also of course, I see myself as a Pepys II. Historians and scholars in future centuries will undoubtedly use my old O-Zone diaries and all my other writings as a source of genuine information depicting what the social conditions in our particular era were really like. All this at present spurned literary swill I now present will, way, way, way ahead in the future. be deeply revered for its rock-bottom-hard accuracy. I’m sure you must all agree what a boon to humankind that will be.


But I hasten to add that my similarity to Pepys does not stretch to his religious devoutness. He often states that on Sunday, he ‘arose and to prayer, then to church, then home to dinner, then back to church, and more prayers before bed’. This seemed to all fit in quite well with his frequent all-the-way amorous dalliances with the young wives of his subordinates, when using as persuasive clout his senior position’s power as an omnipotent hirer-and-firer and promotion giver in the naval department.

Also of interest is that he walked about London at all times, day and night, often alone, unmolested. Like his contemporaries he didn’t wear a sword except on formal occasions. It seems not to have been the practice. His younger contemporary, Izaak Walton, gives the same impression in his book, The Compleat Angler. For civilian non-combatants in England at that time, unlike today, it was not a violent society. Even during the Civil War, a couple of centuries after Agincourt, it seems people went about their neutral business in peace.


A Bald Statement: (well not completely, I’ve still patches left). Nevertheless, I’ll humbly make a truly boastful boast in true and proud octogenarian-style. Here it is:

I have never made a mistake, even of a minor character, in anything I have ever offered for publication.

So there. (would you please be quiet and try to control yourselves, this is no time for hilarity).

And what’s more in the exceedingly unlikely event of somebody pointing out such an error, allegedly of mine, I would immediately prove that it was purposely made either as a joke or to test someone’s powers of observation.

In fact, I learned this handy attribute of making no errors long ago in the hydrographic service (you can’t place a sounding showing 42 feet of water on a part of a chart and then have a valuable 36-foot-draught tanker pile up on that very same spot. You may be dragged into a court of law). Same thing at the National Film Board. They just wouldn’t allow one to make mistakes. After all, if you make a blooper when making a film you just can’t do as newspapers do and blame it on ‘an editing error’. Back in the sixties you’d have had to do a costly remake of a portion of the film. You couldn’t just live with it, or fluff it off.

Once when, Lorraine Monk, my NFB boss called me into her office, she was on the telephone. I heard her say: ‘...if John Ough says the ice was twelve feet thick, then the ice was twelve feet thick.’ Then she handed the phone over to me. It was some big guy in the Montreal NFB office quibbling part of a story I’d written. When he repeated his doubts and asked me how I could say the ice was an unbelievable twelve feet thick, I replied: ‘Because I’ve spent weeks working aboard ships breaking through ice, often more than twelve feet thick, and, as the ship’s hydrographer, noting, observing and recording such facts for inclusion in my official report as part of my job’.


Another little episode: I did a story on the amazing Nodwell tracked-transporters at work in the northern reaches of the Mackenzie River area. The Alberta manufacturers called to thank me for the story. The next day they called again. This time with an angry gripe. Why, they wanted to know, had I called their machines Caterpillars? I had not, I replied. Look at today’s Globe and Mail they said. I did. One of my story’s pictures was placed large on the op-ed page and entitled a Caterpillar. Not my doing, I said to the Nodwell guys, I sent you a full copy of the story as sent out. You will find no Caterpillar word in it. Look at my full story as published by the Edmonton Journal and Calgary Herald. Both those Alberta big dailies have used it as issued. I’m not responsible for mistakes by some superior twerp of a Toronto Globe and Mail editorial cutline writer.


Lots of freelancers around the world plagiarised my stories and bylined them. I didn’t care. Our lawyers were going to warn them off. I said, no, let them go on. They’re doing a bit extra for NFB’s job of presenting Canada to the world—at no added cost to us. Just as long as they don’t mess up the intrinsic story content.

Once, in conversation in the press club with a Montreal Star staffer, he told me condescendingly that their paper would certainly never use any of my NFB stuff. So I was very pleased to be able to tell him how one of his senior colleagues quite often picked up large chunks of my stories, added a new head, and how then they were published in the Star under that same guy’s byline. I added that I had quite a few clippings if he wished to see them...


And here’s a real giggle. Four decades ago I spent a day at Government House with Madame Vanier, the then Governor-General’s very gracious wife. Her husband was a truly, classically old time, Canadian G-G —a real Canadian army general of the famed ‘van doos’ who lost part of a leg fighting in France during the Great War. (Did I mention that my choice for the next truly Canadian G-G is retired star ballerina Karen Kain?). Anyway, the press clippings resulting from the story I did on Madame Vanier included one from a pocket-sized girlie magazine published in New York. Such an occurrence was quite outlandish. Though very tittyvating the magazine was nowhere near modern standards of salaciousness, but it was still a dedicated hot girlie mag.

A little while later I had the opportunity to tell Madame Vanier of her photographs appearing in such a magazine. She was highly amused. Of course, of late, it would be nothing out of the ordinary with the bunch we’ve had recently up at Gov. House.

But why did that girlie book use my story? Because, so it was said, in that way they could be classified as a general-content magazine and pass through the US Mail Service.

Really of course, it was because it was just a top-rate story.


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