What if...

Theorising about what might have happened had certain historical events gone the other way has long been a popular subject-area for authors, with Robert Harris’s Fatherland, a detective story set in the Berlin that Albert Speer would have built had the Germans won the Second World War, being the lead example in an increasingly crowded market.

Into this arena has stepped C.J. Sansom, author of the best-selling Shardlake series of thrillers set in the reign of Henry VIII. These have cemented his reputation as an historical novelist par excellence, but now he has moved into the field of alternative history with Dominion, a thriller set in 1950s London – the twist being that this is an imagined London, in a world in which Hitler won.

Like Fatherland but unlike, say, Len Deighton’s SS-GB, Sansom’s alternative world is not one in which Operation Sea Lion was successful – citing Richard Overy’s factual work The Battle of Britain in the historical notes at the end, he reckons it would’ve failed – but one in which Lord Halifax became Prime Minister in May 1940 instead of Winston Churchill. Rather than fighting on as really happened under Churchill, in this alternative reality Halifax sued for peace after the fall of France, signed a humiliating peace treaty (referred to in Dominion as the Treaty, always with a capital ‘T’) and was replaced by an ageing David Lloyd George who took on the role of a British Pétain. Britain got to keep the Empire, but otherwise became subservient to Nazi Germany.

The bulk of the novel is set in 1952, by which time the collaborationist government is headed by Lord Beaverbrook, with the likes of Oswald Mosley (whose fascist party has been the main beneficiary of rigged elections), R.A. Butler and Enoch Powell in the Cabinet. The Conservative and Labour parties have both split into pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty factions – as has the Church of England. The police have become heavily politicised – the violent Special Branch Auxiliaries are for the most part little more than Blackshirts given official licence – and captured subversives are routinely handed over to the Germans for interrogation in the basement of Senate House (which has become the German Embassy). The press, radio and TV (the post-war reintroduction of the latter having happened much earlier than in the real world) are under tight government control. Britons of the Jewish faith have been increasingly persecuted, and the government has recently given in to German demands to have them deported. Among the collaborationist elements of this dystopian society are the Scottish nationalists, whose support has been ensured by vague promises of devolution and national revival.

Elsewhere, America has been isolationist for over a decade, there is mass unrest against British rule in India, Hitler is dying and the war against Russia, although initially successful (with Operation Barbarossa starting earlier than in reality, Moscow was captured and Stalin publicly executed), has become an unwinnable, drawn-out conflict on an unimaginably vast scale.

Churchill is on the run as the elderly figurehead of the Resistance – which, like the resistance movements of Occupied Europe, contains people of many political persuasions (from crusty retired colonels to ardent communists) whose only unifying factor is opposition to the Nazi-friendly government.

One Briton living in this world is David Fitzgerald, a civil servant at the Dominions Office who has for the past couple of years been covertly passing confidential information to the Resistance – and that’s not the only secret that he has been keeping from his wife. David, it turns out, is an old friend of Frank Muncaster, a timid geologist who unwittingly learns of a great and deadly secret that would be of vast benefit to the Germans – provided they can get hold of him. He has been committed to an asylum, and the main part of the plot concerns a plan by the Resistance to ensure his escape before he gets sent to Senate House for interrogation – while trying to stay ahead of the Gestapo’s top man-hunter Gunther Hoth, aided and abetted by a pro-fascist British police officer. As this cat-and-mouse sequence plays out, the Great Smog of ’52 envelopes London.

Sansom has done a fantastic job of imagining an alternative, terrifyingly dystopian version of 1950s Britain. It is a highly convincing account of the dark forces (most notably, anti-Semitism) that may have been unleashed had a key moment in British history gone another way, combined with a good, solid spy thriller that will keep the reader guessing until the last few pages. If you want my honest opinion, I reckon that, as far as alternative history thrillers go, this is actually better than Fatherland.

As I think I’ve mentioned before, no work of historical fiction can be truly detached from the time in which it is written, and the same is, I think, true of works of alternative history as well. The present always has an influence on those who are writing about the past, both the real and imagined versions of it. In Dominion, a key point that Sansom wants to make is of the dangers of nationalism as a force of division and potential destruction – now as well as in his reimagining of the recent past. 

Specifically, as a supporter of the Better Together campaign, the Edinburgh-born Sansom has a warning about the dangers of a ‘yes’ vote in the forthcoming Scottish independence referendum. It is no coincidence that the SNP is depicted as collaborationist in this novel (it had opposed conscription in 1939, and Sansom notes that in occupied Europe nationalist movements were encouraged by the Nazis in return for their support, with puppet governments being established in, for example, Slovakia and Croatia). In his historical notes at the end, Sansom states that: ‘A party which is often referred to by its members, as the SNP is, as the National Movement should send a chill down the spine of anyone who remembers what those words have often meant in Europe.’

A warning from history...


Walking the line of history

Paris is a city for walking – much more so than, say, London. When we go to Paris, we do a lot of walking, sometimes because the distance between two places doesn’t look to be that much on the map (indeed, Paris is, generally speaking, a more compact city than London), sometimes because a lot of walking is required merely to change lines at your average Métro station. Either way, a visit to Paris tends to involve a lot of walking, and I have the statistics from my pedometer to bear this out.

There are many walks that you can do around Paris, and I don’t just mean the one in the morning to the nearest boulangerie. When we were in Paris last weekend, we purchased a book containing the routes for twenty walks in the city (one for each arrondissement) which I look forward to reading in advance of our next trip there!

The focus of this post, though, concerns a straight-line walk that takes in several prominent landmarks and a lot of French history. I refer to the Axe historique (‘historical axis’), the line of monuments, squares and thoroughfares that stretches out from the centre of Paris to the west.

It begins at the Louvre, the former royal palace (built in the seventeenth century to replace the old medieval fortress) that became a museum during the 1790s and is today the most visited museum in the world. Oddly, it’s one that I’ve never felt the inclination to visit, probably due to the vast crowds and the notion that the sheer size of the place means that I probably wouldn’t know where to start. It is said that it would take nine months to see every piece of art in the place, so surely a mere afternoon can’t do it justice? But I’ll go there one day; after all, we’ll always have Paris, won’t we?

The main entrance to this mega-museum is the Grande Pyramide, the glass structure in the courtyard that was built as part of President Mitterand’s expansion project for the Louvre in the 1980s, and is today surrounded by queues of tourists all wanting to get in so they can see the Mona Lisa. By the way, the Grande Pyramide (which does indeed have an inverted counterpart below ground) does not actually have 666 panes of glass – this was an urban myth perpetuated when it was built, and was later popularised by The Da Vinci Code.

Moving away from the Louvre, the axe heads west towards the Jardin des Tuileries, but just before you get there you have the first of three arches, the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel. This was Napoleon Bonaparte’s original arc de triomphe, built to commemorate his victories up to 1805 when he triumphed over the Austrians and the Russians at Austerlitz (the British are not alone in naming a railway station after a famous military victory) and modelled on the Roman Arc of Septimus Severus, which can be seen today in the Forum in Rome. Subsequently, the diminutive Corsican decided that he wanted something bigger and embarked on the construction of a much larger triumphal arch, although that would not be completed until the 1830s.

From the smaller, original arch, the axe continues through the Tuileries, the formal garden originally created by Catherine de Medici in 1564 and which became a public park after the Revolution (although it had in fact been open to the public since 1667). The queen of Henri II and the mother of three more Kings of France, Catherine de Medici was a political intriguer (well, she was a Medici) and a great patron of the arts – most of what she collected is now in the Louvre. She is also credited with giving French cuisine a kick-start by bringing in her own cooks from her native Florence – a cultural import continued by her cousin, Marie de Medici (the wife of Henri IV). French chefs took on the recipes and sophisticated cookery styles of the Italian upstarts, and the rest is history.

The Tuileries used to be the gardens of another royal palace, which stood in what is now the space between the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel and the gardens. This, the palace to which Louis XVI was moved in 1789 so that the revolutionaries could keep a closer eye on him and which was the residence of the kings and emperors of the nineteenth century, was burned down by the Paris Commune in 1871. This in turn left an empty space between the northern and southern wings of the Louvre, thus opening up the courtyard to the Axe historique.

The gardens remain, however, to be enjoyed by tourists and promenading Parisians. Here can be found many sculptures amid the trees, while those looking for a museum on a smaller scale than the Louvre can take in the Musee de l’Orangerie (of which more in a future post). There are also various snack-stalls where you can get a croque-monsieur or a crêpe and have lunch amid the flower-beds and the statues before continuing through the park, looking ahead along the Axe historique while trying not to think about how dusty your shoes are getting.

Standing directly on the axe as one leaves the Tuileries is the Egyptian obelisk nicknamed ‘Cleopatra’s Needle’, although this one has nothing to do with Cleopatra, having been made over a thousand years before she was born. Nor is it really connected with the one in London (or, for that matter, the one in New York); this one dates from the 19th Dynasty (1292-1189 BC) and originally adorned the Temple of Rameses in Luxor before the rulers of Egypt presented it to France in 1826, and when it arrived in Paris in 1833 the king, Louis-Philippe, placed it close to the site of ... well, I’ll come to that in a moment, but while we’re on the subject of the Citizen King it’s worth noting that he was also responsible for the nearby Fontaines de la Concorde, which were heavily influenced by the fountains of Rome.

Both obselisk and fountains are located on the Place de la Concorde, the square laid out in the mid-eighteenth century. The eight female statues in the corners of the square represent what were at the time the eight largest cities in France (aside from Paris itself): Brest, Rouen, Lyon, Marseilles, Bordeaux, Nantes, Lille and Strasbourg. During the period between the Franco-Prussian War and the First World War, when Alsace-Lorraine was occupied by Germany, the latter was covered in black on state occasions.

Despite its peaceful name, the Place de la Concorde has a violent history, being one of the key locations of the guillotines during the French Revolution. It was in this square that Louis XVI met his end in 1793; subsequently, the likes of Marie Antionette and Charlotte Corday (the woman who killed the revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat while he was having a bath) lost their heads here, and then it was the turn of the revolutionaries Georges Danton and Camille Desmoulines (among many others) as the Revolution became the Reign of Terror – which ended with another execution, that of the arch-revolutionary Maximilien de Robsepierre.

After braving the traffic, it’s onto the Champs-Élysées. Initially, this wide boulevard is bordered by trees and it has a peaceful air that almost (but not quite) belies the large amounts of traffic on the Place de la Concorde and the six lanes of the street itself. Before long, though, the trees give way to the (very) high-end shops and the vast crowds of people who’ve come to look at them.

Originally intended as a tree-lined extension of the Tuileries Gardens, it became a fashionable avenue by the late eighteenth century, with the current buildings owing much to Baron Haussmann, the man who redesigned Paris during the period of the Second Empire (1852-70). Much-described as “the most beautiful avenue in the world”, the Champs-Élysées is certainly one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in the world. The street’s size and proximity to several major landmarks has long made it the venue of choice for military parades, including (notoriously) the German victory parade in 1940 and (famously) de Gaulle’s parade to mark the Liberation in 1944. It still hosts one every year on Bastille Day, while since the 1970s it has been the street on which the Tour de France ends.

If the Champs-Élysées is the most beautiful avenue in the world, then the roundabout at its north-western end must surely be the most insane roundabout in the world. A total of twelve roads meet at the Place Charles de Gaulle (after whom it was renamed in 1970; originally, it was the Place de l’Étoile, which explains the name of the nearby Métro station). This was planned long before the invention of the motor-car as part of Baron Hausmann’s redesigning of Paris, which did away with the old medieval streets and introduced the grand, straight boulevards that we know and walk along today.

At the centre of this place is the Arc de Triomphe – or, to give it its full name, L’Arc de Triomphe de l’Étiole (there being, as previously stated, an earlier triumphal arch). Bonaparte commissioned this massive monument in 1806, and it took three decades to build. The reliefs depict key battles of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, while the names of French victories of that period are engraved on the pillars. So big is this arch that, in 1919, an aeroplane was flown through it.

Appropriately given the military theme, directly beneath the arch is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which commemorates the many soldiers of the First World War with no known grave. This is topped by an eternal flame, said to be the first such flame to have been lit in Europe since Roman times.

This was where our walk along the line of history ended, but from here the Axe historique stretches out beyond the city itself to the business district of La Défense, in particular its Grande Arche which was built to commemorate the bicentenary of the Revolution in 1989. The approximate shape of a cube, this is the third, largest and final arch of this particular line of history.


More studies in Sherlock

Although Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote four Sherlock Holmes novels and 56 short stories, the adventures of this great fictional detective in print do not end there. Since the demise of his creator, many authors have taken up the pen (or the typewriter, or even the laptop) to continue the great detective’s career. Strictly speaking, these are regarded as ‘non-Canonical’ adventures (the ‘Canon’ in a Holmesian context being the works of Conan Doyle and no-one else).

This even happened during Conan Doyle’s lifetime. When his friend William Gillette asked him for permission to write a Holmes stage play in 1899, in which he wanted to take a few liberties with the character, Conan Doyle famously replied: "You may marry him, murder him, or do anything you like to him"; incidentally, that play, which was called Sherlock Holmes, was the first time that the phrase "elementary, my dear Watson", later popularised by the Basil Rathbone filmes, was used.

Of the various Holmes pastiches over the years, two have really stood out for me – a short story and a novel. The former is Colin Dexter’s ‘A Case of Mis-Identity’, not a stab at telling one of the many ‘untold’ tales that Conan Doyle alluded to in Dr Watson’s narratives but never wrote (which is what most would-be Holmes authors do, most notably June Thomson who has written a very good series of books) but a clever retelling of ‘A Case of Identity’ which is buried in the short story collection Morse’s Greatest Mystery. The novel is The Seven-Per-Cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer, which purports to have been written by Watson in old age and tells the ‘real’ story behind the Great Hiatus (the gap in the adventures between Holme’s ‘death’ in ‘The Final Problem’ and his return in ‘The Empty House’); in Meyer’s version, Watson becomes so concerned about Holmes’s drug problem that he and brother Mycroft trick the great detective into travelling to Vienna, where he becomes a patient of Sigmund Freud.

Other stories have him involved in various crossovers with other works of late nineteenth century fiction, getting involved in the hunt for Jack the Ripper (a particularly popular subject-area), going to America for a whole series of adventures and continuing to solve crimes after retiring to do some beekeeping in a cottage on the Sussex Downs. A recent fictional biography – a work of fiction written in the style of a biography of a famous fictional character, taking the conceit of said character being a real person to the extreme – by Nick Rennison has him playing a key role in the early development of MI5 and MI6 (in this interpretation, Moriarty becomes an Irish nationalist whose importance is overstated by the Holmes brothers). Many well-known people from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries make guest appearances, and in turn Holmes and Watson have themselves made a cameo appearance in one of the Flashman books. Recently, and rather timely given the impending centenary of the First World War, there’s even one in which Watson rejoins the Army in 1914 and ends up investigating a series of murders committed on the Western Front.

This brings me to the main subject of this post, which is a review of two Holmes pastiches, namely The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz and The Holmes Affair by Graham Moore.

As with the novels mentioned above, The House of Silk is presented as having been written by Watson in old age (and subsequently consigned, as these things are, to his tin dispatch box in the vaults of Cox & Company at Charing Cross), when he looks back on a case that he couldn’t write about in the 1890s because of the sensitive nature of the case, although there are no Victorian celebrity appearances here. Moriarty plays a cameo role, but he’s not central to the plot.

Instead, the sensitivity concerns the nature of the mysterious establishment of the title – which I will not divulge here for fear of spoiling what is a pretty good plot, but safe to say that it’s a dark secret that is as offensive to our own time as it would have been to the Victorians.

When it comes to crime writing, Horowitz has a good pedigree, having worked on the screenplays for TV shows like Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Foyle’s War in addition to his fiction which is mostly aimed at the teenage market.

Conan Doyle’s style was well-mimicked, although some modern-day sensitivities did creep in. For example, the Baker Street Irregulars, Holmes’s gang of cheeky street-urchins, are portrayed in a way that shows the harshness of their lives, living rough on the mean streets of late-Victorian London.  Indeed, this version of Watson makes much of the social issues of the day which adds a new dimension to the story.

My quibbles are minor. Horowitz says in the notes at the end that he wanted to portray Holmes going into an opium den because Conan Doyle had never done this, although I seem to recall Watson discovering Holmes undercover in one in ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’ (which in turn formed the basis for the crack-house scene in the most recent series of Sherlock). He also presents a list of rules for anyone else wishing to have a go at writing their own Holmes adventure, although he does spoil the effect of these by admitting that he didn’t entirely keep to them himself.

All in all, a good effort that is certainly superior to most Holmes pastiches that have been published over the years.

Moore takes a different approach, balancing two parallel plots – the first is set in 1900 and involves Conan Doyle himself, while the second is set in the present day (well, 2010) and concerns members of a Sherlock Holmes appreciation society (itself quite the contemporary topic, what with the increase in interest in the stories thanks to the TV series). In 1900, Arthur Conan Doyle (he didn’t get knighted until 1902) investigates a series of murders in London after receiving a letter-bomb in the post; meanwhile, in 2010 avid Holmes fan Harold White attends a prestigious ‘Sherlockian’ gathering in a New York hotel, which is marred when one of the society’s leading members is found dead in his room; this leads onto a hunt for a missing part of Conan Doyle’s diary which covers the part of his life which is being played out in the 1900 plot.

Now I’m not a fan of this split-plot device – I’d much rather just have one thread to concentrate on. That said, it can make for a very good story if it’s done well.

This, alas, isn’t. Of the two plots, I personally preferred the 1900 adventure with Holmes’s creator. Still trying to move away from the shadow of Sherlock Holmes seven years after killing him off, Arthur (as he is referred to throughout the proceedings) finds himself having to use the detection skills he bestowed upon his fictional creation, with his friend Bram Stoker acting as a sort-of ‘Watson’. Throughout his adventure, during which he visits Whitechapel, dresses up as a woman to infiltrate a women’s suffrage meeting and is temporarily incarcerated in Newgate Prison, he meets people who tell him how much they enjoyed the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, much to his own irritation.

By contrast, the 2010 plot stutters and I for one found it to be less interesting; like Arthur back in 1900, Harold is forced by circumstances to have a go at being a detective, and uses his knowledge of the afore-mentioned Canon to make his deductions while dealing with a freelance journalist (who, naturally, may not be all that she seems) and a (fictional) descendant of Conan Doyle himself.

Stories centring on Conan Doyle are not unknown – these are usually about how he came to write The Hound of the Baskervilles, the first Holmes adventure he wrote since he’d given the detective the Reichenbach Falls treatment. Moore’s story touches on this, as the events that take place do indeed prompt Conan Doyle to resurrect his famous detective.

There are also a few things Moore gets wrong; American words and spelling abound, and while I don’t find this as distracting as I used to there are a couple of howlers which jar the 1900 plot; Moore manages to have a London policeman in 1900 addressed as ‘officer’ rather than ‘constable’, and there’s a laboured joke at the expense of women’s suffrage campaigner Millicent Fawcett that centres on the assumption that Londoners in 1900 would have used the word ‘faucet’ instead of ‘tap’. More seriously, in the present-day story Moore somehow manages to have the body of a man found dead in suspicious circumstances in New York repatriated to Britain and buried within two days. This is obviously impossible, and it’s the sort of detail that a crime novelist needs to iron out before their books are sent to the publisher.

In conclusion, I’d be interested if Horowitz writes another Holmes adventure. Not sure I’ll be on the look-out for any of Moore’s other works, though.


The strange case of the return of Jonathan Creek

Maybe it was the Winter Olympics, perhaps it was the arrival of the second series of House of Cards on Netflix, or it could be that my trying to catch up with Top Gear via BBC iPlayer had something to do with it. Either way, I managed to miss the news that Jonathan Creek was returning for a new series until a couple of days before it was broadcast. The return of this late Nineties detective show struck me as odd, because those of us who hanker after a private investigator who sees things that others don’t nowadays get our kicks from Sherlock. Besides, the actor in the title role has moved on too, becoming that bloke who always gets the questions wrong on that over-rated panel show QI. Have I missed something?

I have certainly managed to miss the various one-off specials of Jonathan Creek that were broadcast over the past few years (the last actual series aired ten years ago), but I used to like this show so I tuned in to watch the latest offering on Friday evening. Having done so, I was most surprised to behold a Jonathan Creek who has ditched the duffel-coat, moved out of his windmill and evidently moved on from being the creative consultant to a stage magician. Even more implausibly, he’s now married to Sarah Alexander. Character development is all very well but this is taking things too far.

Worse still, us viewers were shown the crime being committed in the first ten minutes. This may have worked with Columbo, but that was how that show operated; it doesn’t work for Jonathan Creek, where the mystery was invariably of the locked-room variety (often with apparently supernatural overtones), and the highlight was always when Jonathan, having utilised his talents for lateral thinking and creating illusions, showed everyone how a seemingly impossible crime was committed. This, rather than the more conventional identifying of the culprit, was always the thing that made Jonathan Creek different from, say, Inspector Morse and Agatha Christie’s Poirot. What was writer David Renwick thinking?

Robbed of the main attraction, the show struggled on through the sight of Alan Davies riding a donkey, a less-than-subtle Sherlock piss-take – Jonathan reluctantly took on an assistant who, aside from looking like a cross between Benedict Cumberbatch and David Tennant, made observation-based deductions that turned out to be completely wrong – and a couple of puzzles which didn’t really hold the viewer’s attention. 

Not being privy to the inner workings of the BBC, I don’t know why they decided to resurrect Jonathan Creek. Furthermore, it is a mystery to me why Mr Renwick decided to mess around with the show’s formula which has worked so well in the past. But I cannot help but think that these were the wrong decisions.


When Britain won at ice hockey

Great Britain has competed in every Winter Olympics since they started in 1924, and much as though I enjoy watching it I would be the first to admit that we’re not the most successful of winter sports nations. You could, of course, argue that given the relative lack of world-class winter sports facilities in the British Isles (even the annual British skiing championships have to be held in the French Alps), Team GB has actually been punching above its weight, with the last time we failed to win any medals at all being in 1992.

A particular national success has been the skeleton (or, as I call it, the going-down-the-ice-head-first-on-a-tea-tray event), in which the British have won a medal every time this has been an Olympic sport; thanks to Lizzie Yarnold, that record is safe for another four years. This is rather appropriate, as skeleton has its origins in the famous Cresta Run in St Morritz, which was built in the 1880s in order to stop British guests in the town from sledging (or, if you prefer, tobogganing) in the streets. Unlike everyone else, the British preferred to go head-first – the point at which skeleton and luge diverged.

Other winter sports in which Great Britain has tended to do well are curling (in which the Scottish team competes under the Union Jack), figure skating and the bobsleigh. In fact, prior to Jenny Jones’s bronze medal in the snowboarding, all of Team GB’s Winter Olympic medals had been won on ice (prior to 2014, the closest the British had ever come to a medal on snow was Gina Hathorn’s fourth in the women’s slalom in 1968, although there was also the matter of Alain Baxter’s controversial disqualification in the men’s slalom in 2002).

There is, though, an unusual entry on Britain’s modest list of Winter Olympic successes. It’s from 1936, and concerns the matter of a gold medal in ice hockey.

Nowadays, Great Britain tends not to qualify for the Winter Olympic ice hockey tournament. Team GB – and unlike in football and rugby, it really is Team GB for this sport – is currently ranked 22nd in the world, and with 12 countries taking part you can see how the numbers don’t add up. If we’re going to be honest, and we might as well be, Team GB got through the pre-qualifying for Sochi 2014 but lost out in the final qualifying tournament in Riga last year; specifically, we lost to Latvia (who qualified), France and Kazakhstan (6-0, that last one).

Back in 1936, though, things were different. The Bavarian skiing resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen hosted the games, and although the controversy associated with Nazi Germany hosting the Olympics is usually attached to the summer games of that year, which were held in Berlin, there was a fair amount of that at Garmisch-Partenkirchen as well. Perhaps the most noteworthy story concerns ice hockey, with the inclusion of Rudi Ball in the German team. He’d played for Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s but as he was Jewish he’d been dropped after the Nazis had come to power. However, he was considered to be one of the best ice hockey players in Europe, and amid much controversy – including threats from his team-mates to refuse to play if Ball didn’t play – he was reinstated, apparently striking a deal whereby his family could leave Germany if he played.

Canada were the favourites to win the ice hockey (not everything was different), and the tournament itself had what would seem today to be an odd structure, with the semi-finals and the final being group stages. Confused? Me too! Of the 15 teams that entered, eight progressed to the semi-finals (which were played as two groups of four), with four making it to the final which was a round-robin in which the scores from games played in previous stages between teams who’d made it that far were counted. This particular rule would become apparent as a result of the Canada-Great Britain game in the semi-finals.

That, by the way, was the crucial game. If the Americans had their miracle on the ice in 1980, this was Britain’s.

But, before we get to that, just how British was the British ice hockey team of 1936?

It’s a good question, as whenever this particular gold medal gets brought up (which, to be honest, isn’t very often), the usual accusation is that the British simply recruited some Canadian expats to play under the Union Jack. Great Britain had entered the Winter Olympic ice hockey tournament before, winning the bronze medal in 1924, and the team then had indeed been composed almost entirely of Canadians – either military officers stationed in Britain or students studying at British universities, the Winter Olympics being an exclusively amateur affair back then. For 1936, though, the British Olympic Association decreed that every member of the British team had to be not just British subjects, but British-born.

Although it was never going to challenge football as the most popular winter spectator sport, ice hockey enjoyed something of a boom in Britain in the 1930s. The brains behind promoting the sport in this country was a man called J.F. ‘Bunny’ Ahearne, who in 1934 became the manager of the British national team. He recruited Percy Nicklin, who had moved to England in 1935 to coach the Richmond Hawks after a successful coaching career in his native Canada, to help him find players in Canada (the only obvious source of good players) who would meet the British-born requirement. As coach, Nicklin was to be the driving force behind the team he assembled.

The thirteen-strong team that Ahearne and Nicklin got together for the 1936 Winter Olympics varied in age from 39 (Carl Erhardt, the captain, who was actually older than Ahearne!) to 18 (Jack Kilpatrick). One of them, Archie Stinchcombe, could only see out of one eye as the result of a childhood accident. As it turned out, only one member of the team had actually been born in Canada – Gordon Dailley, who had moved to Britain in 1933, apparently by working his passage across the Atlantic on a cattle boat; he was deemed to have qualified by residence. Of the others, ten were British-born but Canadian-raised (sources do vary, though, with Wikipedia claiming that Gerry Davey was born in Canada, whereas the British Ice Hockey Hall of Fame has him as being born in Essex). Some had already moved back to England before Nicklin began to build his team; Jimmy Borland, for example, had been playing for the Great Britain team since 1934.

The story of Edgar Brenchley, though, was typical of the team; born in Kent, his family emigrated to Canada when he was a child and he was brought up in Niagara. A promising amateur player, he played for an American team before moving back to England in 1935, when he started playing under Nicklin for the Richmond Hawks at the same time as Johnny Coward (born in Ambleside, raised in Fort Frances, Ontario) and Jimmy Foster (born in Greenock, raised in Winnipeg).

Of the two with no Canadian connections, both were defencemen; Erhardt had learned how to play as a result of having been sent to school in Switzerland and had played for his country since 1931, while Bob Wyman – who for a time held the British half-mile record in speed-skating – had learned how to play in London, although funnily enough he played for a team called the Grosvenor House Canadians.

All of those selected for the British team played in what was then the newly-formed English National League in the 1935-36 season – representing teams like the Wembley Lions, the Harringay Greyhounds, the Brighton Tigers and the Richmond Hawks (the Grosvenor House Canadians had by that season become the Wembley Canadians, later to be renamed the Wembley Monarchs). None of these teams exist anymore; the fluctuating fortunes of ice hockey – a minority sport in Britain – meant that teams tended to fold when the leagues in which they competed did. Today, London doesn’t even have a team in what is currently the Elite Ice Hockey League.

The Canadian hockey authorities did not take Nicklin’s recruitment drive lying down, and things probably weren’t helped by the fact that the French team had had the same idea. As far as the British were concerned, though, the Canadian Olympic Committee only protested against the inclusion of two players, Jimmy Foster and Alex Archer. Both had been suspended by the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association in 1935 for leaving Canada in order to play ice hockey elsewhere, and they were subsequently banned by the International Ice Hockey Federation, only to be reinstated after the Canadians withdrew their protest shortly before the Winter Olympics began.

In the event, Foster – Nicklin’s first choice as goaltender – played a crucial role in Great Britain’s success at the Winter Olympics, only letting in three goals and recording four shutouts, an impressive feat in a tournament that averaged over four goals per game (in total, of the 31 games he played for Great Britain, 16 were shutouts). His ever-presence in the side meant that the reserve goalie, Arthur Child, didn’t play a game and therefore wasn’t eligible for a medal. Archer, a right-winger and a former two-times Manitoban All Star, also played in all seven games, scoring two goals.

The Canadian selection policy back in those amateur days was to have the country be represented at the Winter Olympics by the previous year’s Allan Cup winners (to this day, the Allan Cup is the trophy awarded to the national amateur men’s champions of Canada). For the 1936 Winter Olympics, though, the 1935 Allan Cup winners were unavailable, so Canada was represented by the runners-up, the Port Arthur Bearcats. This did not stop them from being tipped to win gold.

In the first round, GB beat Sweden (1-0) and Japan (3-0) to progress to the next stage. Elsewhere, Italy recorded a surprise win over the USA while Canada swept all before them, scoring 24 goals in their three first-round matches. The pre-tournament favourites were living up to expectations.

The two met on 11th February in the semi-final group stage. Great Britain went ahead in the first minute thanks to Gerry Davey, who had fallen ill but had got out of his sick bed to play. Canada soon equalised but GB’s defence, especially Foster in goal, prevented the favourites from adding to their considerable goal tally. The score remained at 1-1 until well into the third period, when with 90 seconds left on the clock, Edgar Brenchley scored to make it 2-1 to the British.

Subsequently, a 1-1 tie against Germany and a victory over Hungary (5-1, compared to Canada’s 15-0 thrashing of the same side) saw Britain make it to the final.

Once in the final group, GB didn’t have to play Canada again as the semi-final result was taken forward. This has been cited by some as evidence of British skulduggery, but those were the tournament rules (similarly, the USA didn’t have to play Czechoslovakia again) and the Olympic authorities stuck to them despite Canadian protests.

Having defeated Czechoslovakia 5-0, GB tied 0-0 against the USA in a game that went through six periods before a tie was declared (this being the days before sudden death and shoot-outs). This assured GB of at least a silver medal. All that stood between them and the gold was the USA, who could win the gold themselves if they beat Canada by at least five goals. Exhausted by the six-period game against the British, though, they lost 1-0, this result meaning that Canada won the silver and the Americans the bronze.

As the Winter Olympics doubled as the World Championships, this meant that for the first (and only) time, Great Britain were the world ice hockey champions.

Carl Erhardt retired from playing after the Winter Olympics. At 39, he remains the oldest person ever to have won a gold medal in this event. Most of the team played in the World Championships the following year, when GB (the hosts) won the silver medal, a feat they would repeat in 1938; both times, Canada won.

After that, some of the gold-winning players continued to play in Britain while others returned to North America – Brenchley found himself playing for the Atlantic City Seagulls in 1939. Most of them would serve in the Second World War. Jimmy Chappell took part in the D-Day Landings. Bob Wyman became a lieutenant-commander in the Royal Navy. Johnny Coward, whose 1936 sweater can be seen today in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, served in the Royal Military Police and went back to Canada, and a job in a paper mill, after the war. Gordon Dailley went on to serve in the Korean War as well, and rose to the rank of colonel in the Canadian Army; later, he founded Canada’s first drive-through safari park. Jimmy Foster went back to Canada to work in an aircraft factory. Alex Archer, who scored 82 goals in five seasons for the Wembley Lions, carried on playing until 1945, when he fractured his skull in an international against Sweden; he then went into coaching. Erhardt, considered by many to be a fine all-round sportsman, went on to establish the British Water Ski Federation. Ahearne would become the president of the International Ice Hockey Federation. Three players – Gerry Davey, Archie Stinchcombe and Jimmy Chappell – played for Great Britain at the next Winter Olympics, in 1948.

That was the last time a British ice hockey team qualified for the Winter Olympics.


Various entries on Wikipedia