Surviving History

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

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Tuesday, May 13, 2014


They were a motley band of men.
Some were hardened veterans of war. Many more were thugs and drunkards who’d sailed from British shores in the hope of profiting from the spoils of battle. None of them realised that they were about to take part in possibly the most remarkable march in military history.
Bolivar's men on the march
The self-styled British Legion was part of Simon Bolivar’s Patriot Army. Bolivar - the would-be liberator of South America - had conceived of a brilliant but highly dangerous strategy to outwit the hated Spanish.
His idea was to lead his troops over the icy heights of the Andes and then swoop down on the unsuspecting enemy and drive them into the sea. It was a plan that was fraught with danger and difficulty.
The long march began in March 1819. It was undertaken by some 2,000 infantry and cavalry, including the 250-strong British Legion. The troops were accompanied by medics and engineers, as well as wives, children and cattle.
The Liberator
The journey became an ordeal long before the army reached the mountains. As they traversed the plains into what is now Colombia, they faced torrential tropical rain and severe flooding. They had to wade through the water, floating their weaponry on makeshift rafts. When the floodwaters grew too high, they were forced to swim.
Half starved, exhausted and suffering from dysentery, they struggled through the swampland towards the distant mountains. Here, at least, they would be spared the vicious gnats and malarial mosquitoes that had plagued the first stage of their journey.
At the beginning of July, they finally reached the foot of the mountains, weaker, depleted in numbers, but still inspired by Bolivar’s extraordinary leadership.
They staggered up the rocky slopes dreaming of Spanish booty. As they climbed higher and higher, the air thinned and the weather became increasingly hostile.
Bolivar's army in action
The cavalry had already led their horses through swamps and marshes. Now, they had to urge them across the vertiginous heights of the Paramo de Pisba.
The rain and sleet tipped down in a ceaseless torrent and many succumbed to hypothermia. It was not long before all the livestock was dead. Weakened by the mountain air, the cattle collapsed and died on the upper slopes of the mountains.
Men of the British Legion
 ‘The harshness of the peaks we have crossed would be staggering to anyone who hasn't experienced it,’ wrote Bolivar. ‘There's hardly a day or night it doesn't rain… Our only comfort is the thought that we've seen the worst and that we are nearing the end of the journey.’
But there was worse to come: mighty ravines and yawning fissures that could only be traversed by stringing leather ropes across the void.
By the time the troops had scaled the peaks of the Paramo de Pisba, their shoes had fallen apart and their clothes were in tatters. Even the officers were in a terrible state: ‘[they] had no trousers, and were glad to cover themselves with pieces of blanket.’ More than a quarter of the British contingent lay dead on the mountains.
The army crosses the Paramo de Pisba
Those that eventually staggered into the town of Socha, on the far side of the Andes were given a rousing welcome from the native population. They were given food, shelter and new clothes.
Bolivar was heartened to learn that the Spanish were entirely ignorant that his army had crossed the mountains. Indeed, their senior commanders had dismissed the very idea as impossible. Bolivar knew that he had to strike now, while he still had the advantage of surprise.
The liberation of New Granada began just days after the last of the soldiers descended from the peaks. At dawn on 25 July, Bolivar swept his troops into a dramatic attack on the Spanish at Pantano de Vargas, some 120 miles northeast of Bogota.
The Spanish general, José María Barreiro, held all the advantages. His troops were well trained and equipped with the latest weaponry. They also commanded the high ground. But Barreiro was caught completely off-guard by Bolivar’s surprise appearance in New Grenada.
The Patriot Army fought with distinction, leading an uphill cavalry charge against the entrenched Spanish. After a furious battle, the Spaniards fled from the field. It was the first in a string of victories orchestrated and led by Simon Bolivar.
Paramo de Pisba: forbidding terrain
The key battle took place at Boyaca a fortnight later. Bolivar led his troops in a surprise charge on the Spanish positions, tearing into their tidy formations and dispersing them across the hillside.
The British Legion fought with great bravery, butchering Spaniards wherever they could. Many sustained terrible wounds. One, the renowned Irish soldier, Daniel O’Leary, sustained a deep gash to the skull. Another, Colonel James Rooke, had to have his left arm amputated on the battlefield.
He seized the severed limb in his right hand and shouted ‘Viva la patria.’ When he was asked which to country he was referring - England or Ireland - he responded: ‘the one that will bury me.’
He died three days later.
By the time he succumbed to his wounds, victory belonged to Bolivar. His band of soldiers had utterly routed the Spanish, who now found themselves in headlong retreat.
Bolivar’s desperate march across the Andes had paid off. The road to Bogota - and glory -  was now open.

My new book, Russian Roulette, is now published in the USA. Available at amazonbarnes&noble and all good independent publishers.  

With this marvellous, meticulously researched and truly ground-breaking account of British spies working in Lenin's stripling Soviet Union, Giles Milton - with his best book so far - reminds us of a time when the spying game was dangerous, fun and - dare one say it - even cool.' Simon Winchester, author of The Men who United the States and The Professor and the Madman

Tuesday, September 17, 2013


Paul Dukes knew that he was being hunted by the Soviet secret police. He also knew he would be executed if caught. After all, he was a British spy in an enemy land. The only way to avoid capture was to constantly switch identities.
Dukes in disguise as a Russian
But by the summer of 1919, his undercover life had become so dangerous that he needed to get out of Russia immediately. He contacted Mansfield Cumming, head of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), and asked for help. 
Cumming proved only too obliging. He employed an intrepid young naval officer, Augustus Agar, equipping him with two state-of-the-art speedboats that could be used to cross the mine-strewn Gulf of Finland. The idea was to pluck Dukes out of Petrograd, from under the noses of the Bolsheviks.
In the greatest secrecy, Agar crossed from Finland to Russia in his speedboat and landed a courier by the name of Gefter.
Gefter was to make contact with Dukes and tell him of the planned rendezvous with Agar on the night of 14 August. The two of them would meet with Agar’s speedboat in the Gulf of Finland.
Dukes as himself
At around 10 o’clock on the night in question, under a sky still streaked with light, the two men rowed out into the gulf. They glanced anxiously at the skyline: both had noticed the banks of threatening storm clouds.
‘After a while the sky blackened, the wind freshened, the wavelets became waves, their caressing grew into lashings,’ wrote Dukes.
Dukes loved switching identities
Seawater soon began to drag the boat deep into the water. A waterlogged boat would have presented major difficulties in any weather conditions, but it was disastrous in the teeth of an advancing storm. Before long, Dukes and Gefter were up to their waists in water.
Agar, meanwhile, was steering his speedboat through the Gulf of Finland’s minefields. He reached the Lissy Nos Point and then cut the engines. He’d made it to the rendezvous on time.
He scanned the water in the hope of sighting Dukes’ flashlight signal. But there was no sign of life in the darkness.
Home, but dangerous: St Petersburg
After a long wait, he flashed a signal to the shore. Still no sign of Dukes. Ten minutes passed - then twenty. Eventually the first rays of light began to streak across the eastern sky and they were obliged to restart the speedboat’s engines and head back to Finland.
Agar was depressed by his failure to rescue Dukes and Gefter, fearing that they’d been caught by the Cheka. In fact, their plight had been even more dramatic.
The two men had been in sight of Agar’s skimmer when their rowing boat slipped beneath the waves. With a strong current against them, they had no option but to swim for the shore.
The water was icy and the spray made rapid progress impossible. Dukes was a strong swimmer and eventually reached the shore close to collapse. Gefter was washed up in an even more critical condition. His skin was white and he was suffering from acute hypothermia.
Lenin: the enemy
The two men attempted to walk to safety. Gefter was barefoot for he’d kicked off his boots in the water. Now, the rocks lacerated his feet and they were soon bleeding badly. Dukes attempted to carry him, but he was too heavy and the two men sat down exhausted. As they shivered in the chill air, Gefter slumped forwards and collapsed. He’d stopped breathing.
‘In sudden terror I began to rub him with great energy,’ wrote Dukes. ‘I lay down beside him, covered his mouth with mine and blew down his throat. Alternately, I filled his lungs and pressed on his belly.’
Mansfield Cumming
After a terrifying few minutes, the lifeless Gefter vomited a bucketful of seawater. His eyes flickered and his hands stirred. He eventually managed to sit himself upright and a little colour returned to his face. Dukes carried him to a fisherman’s cottage and left him there to be nursed.
He then made his return to Petrograd and went back into hiding. But with no money at his disposal, he had no option but to make a second escape attempt almost immediately.
Augustus Agar to the rescue
Agar had meanwhile returned to London in order to report to Mansfield Cumming. When he arrived at the Whitehall office, he was told that Cumming had asked him to wait in the corridor outside. The door soon opened and a tall, dark-haired man emerged from the room.
‘Something about him and his manner arrested my attention and seemed to me to be familiar,’ wrote Agar, ‘but whether it was the eager look in his eyes, or a certain tense expression in his face, I cannot say.’
Agar hesitated for a moment: he could not take his eyes off the man.
‘Then, in a flash of intuition, a thought came to my mind. I was the first to speak.
“Are you Dukes?”
‘“Yes,” he replied.
Agar introduced himself, bringing a smile to Dukes’s face.
‘“C has a habit of arranging these little matters like this.” At which point we both laughed and shook hands and entered C’s office together.’
Two more of Cumming's agents were safely home after a highly dangerous undercover mission.

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

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

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


The attacks began shortly after midday on 27 August, 1919.
A British plane could be seen descending rapidly towards the village of Emtsa in northern Russia. As it passed over the Bolshevik military positions, it dropped dozens of exploding metal canisters.
Attacks using chemical weapons took place from the air
The entrenched soldiers had been attacked from the air on several occasions, but they quickly discovered that this new offensive was a wholly different affair. As the canisters exploded, they emitted clouds of highly toxic green gas. Those unfortunate enough to inhale it immediately began vomiting blood.
Churchill: a supporter of chemical weapons
Fully 94 years before the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad used chemical gas against his own people, Winston Churchill planned and executed a prolonged chemical attack on Bolshevik-controlled Northern Russia.
As Secretary of State for War, Churchill had long been arguing for military action against Lenin’s Bolsheviks, much to Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s annoyance. ‘He has Bolshevism on the brain,’ he said, ‘[and] he is mad for operations in Russia.’
In the aftermath of the First World War there was no appetite for putting troops on the ground. But Churchill knew that scientists at the governmental laboratories at Porton in Wiltshire had only recently developed a devastating weapon.
British soldiers assemble the M Device
The top secret ‘M Device’ was an exploding shell containing a highly toxic gas. The man in charge of researching and building the M Device, Major General Charles Foukes, called it ‘the most effective chemical weapon ever devised.’
Trials at Porton suggested that it was indeed a terrible weapon. Uncontrollable vomiting, coughing up blood and instant, crippling fatigue were the most common symptoms.
The overall head of chemical warfare production, Sir Keith Price, was convinced their use would lead to the rapid collapse of the Bolshevik regime. ‘If you got home only once with the Gas you would find no more Bolshies this side of Vologda.’
The Cabinet was deeply hostile to the use of chemical weapons against the Bolsheviks. But Churchill argued his corner with customary ebullience. Indeed he surprised his colleagues by advocating using the M Device against the rebellious tribes of northern India.
'Bolshies' - the Red Army
‘I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes…’ he declared in one secret memorandum. He criticised his colleagues for their ‘squeamishness’, declaring that ‘the objections of the India Office to the use of gas against natives are unreasonable. Gas is a more merciful weapon than [the] high explosive shell, and compels an enemy to accept a decision with less loss of life than any other agency of war.’
He ended his memo on a note of ill-placed black humour: ‘Why is it not fair for a British artilleryman to fire a shell which makes the said native sneeze?’ he asked. ‘It is really too silly.’
British aerial attacks using chemical weapons began with the aerial attack on the village of Emtsa, 120 miles to the south of Archangel. Fifty-three M Devices were dropped at lunchtime and a further 62 in the evening. The Bolshevik soldiers on the ground were seen fleeing in panic as thick green clouds of toxic chemical gas drifted towards them.
The British were keen to study the effects of this gas. To this end, they sent a small team of scientists to Russia in order to examine the victims of the chemical attacks.
Rare picture of an M Device
Among them was a Russian soldier named Private Boctroff of the 49 Regiment. He escaped from the looming gas cloud, but not before inhaling some of its poison. Captured by the British, Boctroff described the instantaneous effect that the gas had on him.
According to British medical notes, he was ‘affected with giddiness in head, running from ears, bled from nose and cough with blood, eyes watered and difficulty in breathing.’
Private Boctroff reported that some of his comrades had been close to the spot where the M Device had landed. ‘[They] were overpowered in the cloud and died there; the others staggered about for a short time and then fell down and died.’
The chemical attacks continued throughout the month of September, with strikes on the Bolshevik-held villages of Chunova, Vikhtova, Pocha, Chorga, Tavoigor and Zapolki. Some of these attacks use large quantities of M Devices: 183 canisters were dropped on Vikhtova.
Once the gas had dissipated, British and White Russian troops (equipped with gas masks) were sent in to attack any remaining Bolshevik soldiers. One British lieutenant, Donald Grantham, later questioned Bolshevik prisoners about the attacks. They described their gassed comrades as ‘lying practically helpless on the ground and the usual symptoms of bleeding from the nose and mouth.’ In extreme cases, the men coughed up large quantities of blood.
British soldier with M Device
The use of chemical weapons caused widespread demoralisation on the battlefield, even amongst those who had not inhaled the gas. Yet they proved less effective than Churchill had hoped. They did not lead to the collapse of the Red Army, as he believed they would. The weather was primarily to blame. Toxic gas proved ineffectual in the damp conditions of an early Russian autumn.
By September, as British forces prepared to withdraw from Archangel and Murmansk, the chemical attacks were permanently stopped. According to a report written for the War Office, a total of 2,718 M Devices had been dropped on Bolshevik positions; 47,282 remained unused.
Villages like this were targeted
It was too dangerous to ship these remaining devices back to England. In mid-September, the decision was taken to dump them in the White Sea. A military tug took them to a position 30 miles north of the Dvina Estuary and they were tipped overboard.
They remain on the seabed to this day in 40 fathoms of water.
Now published in UK
An edited extract from my new book, Russian Roulette, now published in the UK and available here. An extraordinary tale of British espionage inside post-revolutionary Russia. USA and foreign editions in 2014 

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

Tuesday, August 6, 2013


The rescuers couldn’t believe their eyes.
Dozens of emaciated men, women and children lay huddled in the snow, suffering from disease and acute hypothermia. Around them lay the remains of dismembered human bodies - their former companions - that had been partially consumed.
Nearing the summit of the mountains
It was the spring of 1847 and relief had at last reached the most doomed voyage ever undertaken by American pioneers. The so-called Donner Party was a wagon train of 81 adventurers heading westwards to California. Their hope was to build new lives in the Sacramento Valley. Instead, their journey met with disaster in the freezing mountains of Sierra Nevada.
The voyage was led by George Donner, patriarch of the Donner family and a 62-year-old farmer from Springfield, Illinois. He was heading west with his wife, Tamsen, and their five young daughters. He was also accompanied by his younger brother, Jacob, along with his wife, two stepsons and five children.
It was quite so cosy
Other families also signed up for the adventure, among them the Reed family, the Murphys, the Wolfingers and a number of unmarried men.
The wagons set off from Independence, Missouri in April 1846, on a voyage that should have taken them five months.
George Donner’s first mistake was to take a new route to California, known as the Hastings Cutoff. Although shorter than the more popular trail, it was unmarked and required the traversing of two major obstacles, the Wasatch Mountains and the Great Salt Desert.
The Donner party survived both of these, but it took a severe toll on their health. More than 100 oxen and cattle were also lost and the pioneers themselves were seriously malnourished.
They pressed on regardless, aware of the need to traverse the Sierra Nevada mountains before the first of the winter snows arrived.
The families set out one by one, with the Donners bringing up the rear. At one point the axle on their wagon broke and George had to fashion a new one. He cut his hand badly with a chisel but believed the wound would heal by itself. He had no idea that it would soon be badly infected.
The children were the first to suffer
Within days of entering the mountains the skies turned cloudy and it began to snow. The terrain was arduous even in good weather. Driving snow and sub zero temperatures made it even more difficult.
One by one the families struggled up a ‘massive, nearly vertical slope’ that brought them to Truckee Lake, some three miles from the summit.
They found ruined cabins built by previous pioneers and decided to shelter from the storm. Their idea was to push on over the summit as soon as the blizzard had blown over.
But as the snow continued to accumulate, their hopes began to fade. The drifts were soon ten feet deep and the mountains impassable. The families had no option but to survive the winter on this lonely and inhospitable mountaintop.
The Donners found themselves stranded five miles down the trail at Alder Creek. Aware that they could not continue in such deep snow, they constructed makeshift tents to house the 21 people in their party, among them 12 children.
Truckee (now Donner) Lake
On 4 November, it began to snow even harder and it was to continue for eight days - a blizzard that left them fatally exposed. For the next four months, the family was to endure unbelievable hardship and suffering.
A small group of men from the Truckee Lake party tried to break out of the mountains and search for help. A few of them eventually made it to safety and alerted the authorities in California as to what had happened. Finally, in February 1847, the first search party reached Truckee Lake.
They were appalled by what they found. Thirteen people were dead and the rest were severely malnourished. A number of the survivors were led to safety, but many more were simply too weak or sick to be moved. These included 12 members of the Donner clan, still stranded at Alder Creek.
The route they took
A second relief party made it back to the mountains in March. They found an even more horrifying spectacle than before, especially at Alder Creek.
One of the survivors, Jean Baptiste Trudeau, was spotted carrying a severed human leg. When he realised he’d been seen, he threw the leg into a hole in the snow. When the rescuers investigated further, they found it contained the dismembered body of Jacob Donner.
Inside one of the tents, they found Elizabeth Donner’s children eating the organs of their dead father.
Stumps of trees cut by Donners: the height of the cut
trunks indicated the depth of the snow
They also found the remains of three other bodies that had already been consumed.
Tamsen Donner was still in reasonable shape, but her husband George was now gravely ill, his wounded hand and arm infected with gangrene. Tamsen elected to remain with him, along with one of his nephews, watching with a heavy heart as seventeen others were helped off the mountain.
By the time the final rescue mission was sent, it was too late to help George Donner. His corpse was found in one of the tents at Alder Creek. 
As the rescuers made their way back down the mountain they stumbled across Lewis Keseberg, one of the survivors, who recounted a rambling tale of how Tamsen Donner had pitched up at his cabin at Truckee Lake just a few days previously.
Keseberg told them that she had died shortly after arriving but the rescuers were suspicious, especially when they found a pot of human flesh in the cabin, as well as George Donner's pistols, jewellery, and $250 in gold.
The accused Keseberg of having murdered her: he would later spend a great deal of time and money trying to clear his name.
Keseberg was the last member of the doomed voyage to leave the mountain. He finally reached safety in late spring, more than a year after the party had first embarked on their fateful voyage.
Happier times before reaching the mountains
It was now time to count the cost. The journey had claimed the lives of 48 people and left deep scars on all who survived. Their tales of cannibalism and human suffering - which soon found their way into the newspapers - were as gripping as they were appalling.
One of the surviving children wrote to her father-in-law, Levi Fosdick, who was thinking of joining her in California.
‘I will now give you some good and friendly advice. Stay at home.’
She spoke from experience.

Coming soon! 
My new book, Russian Roulette, is now available for pre-order here. An extraordinary tale of British espionage inside post-revolutionary Russia. Murder, deception, disguise: you couldn't make it up. 

Giles Milton has a rare ability – a talent for sifting fine pearls from faraway sands and for transmuting the merely arcane into little literary gems.’  Simon Winchester

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


Their last radio contact with brigade headquarters came at shortly after 11.30am on 27 May, 1940: it brought bad news.
In the mass retreat of the British Expeditionary Army, the soldiers of the second battalion, Royal Norfolk Regiment, had inadvertently found themselves cut off some 30 miles to the south of Dunkirk.
Dunkirk: but not everyone made it
Worse still, they were surrounded by several elite divisions of the German army.
The men, who numbered more than a hundred, decided to dig themselves into their positions in and around Cornet Farm, just outside the village of Le Paradis. Although they had a reasonable quantity of guns and ammunition, they were up against a force that was not only superior but also far better equipped.
The farmhouse at Le Paradis
The men of the Royal Norfolks fought defensively with considerable skill and bravery: they managed to hold their positions for the next six hours.
The Germans responded by attacking the farmhouse with mortars and artillery shells that steadily reduced the building to rubble. By 5.15pm the 99 surviving defenders had no more ammunition: they were ordered to surrender under a white flag by their commander, Major Lisle Ryder.
As they emerged from their positions, shell-shocked and dazed, they made a grave mistake - one that was to cost them dearly. Instead of surrendering to the unit they had been fighting, they accidentally gave themselves up to the fanatical SS Division Totenkopf (Death’s Head). This was under the command of the feared Hauptsturmfuhrer Fritz Knoechlein, an SS ideologue with a deep-seated hatred of the British.
Knoechlein: evil
Knoechlein had already received the surrender of a small band of Royal Scots troops. These men were never seen again and are believed to have been murdered in cold blood.
Knoechlein decided on the same course of action for the men of the Royal Norfolks.
The captives - many of them badly wounded - were disarmed and marched down a country lane that led away from Le Paradis. Knoechlein meanwhile instructed his men to set up two machine-guns in one of the nearby fields.
Among the surrendered British troops was a young private named Albert Pooley. He would never forget the appalling events that were to follow. Indeed Pooley’s testimony was to prove crucial when the time for retribution arrived.
Scene of the massacre
‘We turned off the dusty French road, through a gateway and into a meadow beside the buildings of a farm,’ he recalled. ‘I saw - with one of the nastiest feelings I have ever had in my life - two heavy machine guns inside the meadow.’
The guns were pointing directly towards him and his comrades. Suddenly, all hell broke loose. ‘The guns began to spit fire . . . for a few seconds the cries and shrieks of our stricken men drowned the crackling of the guns. Men fell like grass before a scythe.’
Pooley himself felt a searing pain in his body and was pitched violently forward: ‘My scream of pain mingled with the cries of my mates.’
But he was lucid enough to vow to himself that ‘if [I] ever get out of here, the swine that did this will pay for it.’
Pooley (r) and O'Callaghan arrive at the trial
In total, Knoechlein’s men killed 97 prisoners of war in a cold-blooded massacre. There were only two survivors. One was Pooley himself, who miraculously escaped death even though bleeding heavily. The other was Private William O’Callaghan, who also survived the shooting.
When the SS forces finally left the scene of the massacre, O’Callaghan pulled Pooley from the heap of bodies and led him to a nearby pig-sty. The two men spent the next three days in hiding, living on raw potatoes and rainwater.
Both were later captured by the Wehrmacht: William O’Callaghan was sent to a prisoner-of-war camp and didn’t return to England until after the war’s end.
Pooley was marginally more fortunate. He spent three years in a German military hospital recuperating from the appalling wounds he had suffered. He was finally repatriated to England in 1943.
He immediately informed the British authorities about the SS massacre but no one believed him. It wasn’t until after the war, when O’Callaghan corroborated his story, that the authorities swung into action.
Le Paradis today
In 1947, Knoechlein was tracked down by Allied investigators and charged with having committed a war crime. He pleaded not guilty, claiming not to have been present at the massacre.
But one of the key witnesses at his trial was Private Arthur Pooley. His evidence, along with that of William O’Callaghan, was more than enough to convict Knoechlein.
He was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging: the judge rejected all calls for clemency.
Knoechlein is said to have ‘turned grey’ when the verdict was read out to the court. But there was nothing he could do to save himself. He was hanged at Hameln Prison on 29 January, 1949.

Coming soon...
My new book, Russian Roulette, is now available for pre-order here. An extraordinary tale of British espionage inside post-revolutionary Russia. Murder, deception, disguise: you couldn't make it up. 

Giles Milton has a rare ability – a talent for sifting fine pearls from faraway sands and for transmuting the merely arcane into little literary gems.’  Simon Winchester