Hidden among the cow pastures and rolling meadows of Somerset, in the Southwest of England, Middlemoor Water Park features a muddy man-made waterskiing pond, a go-kart track, and a shack selling beer and snacks. But on November 24, 2002, Middlemoor’s main attraction was somewhat more exotic: in a clearing behind the gravel parking lot stood a replica of a trebuchet—a medieval catapult—looming like an oil derrick against the sky. Twenty-six feet tall at rest, made of steel and rough timber, the trebuchet was, according to its builder, a onetime motorcycle salesman and scrapyard owner named David Aitkenhead, “a big, evil, savage-looking contraption.” On this day, the machine was being prepared to violently hurl willing human beings several stories high and into a net 100 feet away.It was a warm day and a crowd of at least 30 had gathered to watch the trebuchet in action. Most were Oxford University student members of the Oxford Stunt Factory, a private alternative- and extreme-sports club. They had arrived in a caravan organized by the head of the club, David “Ding” Boston. The majority had come as spectators. A handful, however—including an enthusiastic 19-year-old freshman biochemistry student from Bulgaria named Kostadine “Dino” Iliev Yankov—were intent on taking a turn.
The proceedings got rolling as the first daredevil was placed in the trebuchet’s sling and then flung in a perfect, arcing parabola into the center of the net, which sat atop 26 stout telegraph poles on the other side of the clearing. Four more successful throws followed. “There was a half-hour between jumps,” remembers Boston, who was videotaping the event from a position beyond the landing area. “It was really a question of keeping yourself busy as they adjusted the weights.”
Finally, it was Yankov’s turn. “I was looking through the video lens,” says Boston, “and I saw the same thing I had seen on the previous throws except that, the moment when I expected him to come into the viewfinder, there was nothing. And then, milliseconds later, a very dull, heavy thud.”
Yankov’s body had missed the net by inches and come crashing to the earth, where he now lay in a broken heap. “You expected to see one of the bearings broken, or a wheel rolling away, or the net hanging, or something,” Boston says. “But there was just Dino, on the ground, making the most ghastly, guttural sounds.”
A helicopter arrived and rushed Yankov to a hospital in Bristol. But the catapult had sent him on a trajectory equivalent to being thrown over a house. By 7:30 P.M. he was dead. Aitkenhead and his partner, Richard Wicks, were arrested eight days later and were eventually charged with manslaughter. Their trial will take place sometime this year.
The sad story made a few headlines in the English papers and would likely have died as a three-line item in “news of the weird” blogs around the world if it hadn’t been for the fact that Aitkenhead and Boston share a distinguished pedigree. Both men served time in the Dangerous Sports Club, a gathering of brilliant and adventurous souls that came together in Oxford in the late 70s and, in a burst of imagination, mischief and style, more or less invented the world of alternative sports. In the decade when it burned brightest, the D.S.C. pioneered hang gliding, invented bungee jumping, sent a grand piano down the slopes at Saint-Moritz, Switzerland, and generally raised a good deal of witty, iconoclastic hell on several continents before going the way of all things that start out new and exciting and then inevitably run their course. The trebuchet accident was a tragic coda to this history, though exactly when—and if— the saga of the D.S.C. came to an end is among the most contentious questions of all.
* * * * * *
At the beginning, middle, and end of any history of the Dangerous Sports Club is the inspiring, infuriating figure of David Kirke, its chairman, guiding spirit, and only member-for-life. In many ways, Kirke is the prototypical Oxford man. Born in 1945, he was the eldest of seven children. His father was a schoolmaster, and his mother was a concert pianist. The family wintered in Switzerland and summered in France, employed 15 servants, and drove around in a vintage Rolls-Royce—all at the last moment of British history when it was possible to enjoy such luxuries and still be considered middle-class. In 1964, Kirke entered Oxford’s Corpus Christi College to study psychology and philosophy.
He was pursuing a graduate degree in 1977 when, along with fellow Oxford graduate student Edward Hulton, he set off for Saint-Moritz to give the famous Cresta Run toboggan track a whirl. The two men ; shared a distaste for anything in sport that smacked of professionalism. “What we hated was the way that formal sports had all these little, important bourgeois instructors saying, ‘You’ve got to get through five-part exams to do this,” Kirke says. The Cresta—exciting, but not truly dangerous—didn’t cut it. Looking elsewhere, the two traveled to the Swiss resort of Klosters and met a young man named Chris Baker, the genial, ski-bum scion of a department-store family in Bristol, who was experimenting with hang gliders. The first generation of gliders had only recently begun to arrive from California. It was a signal moment for do-it-yourself adventurers. “Hang gliding was a very significant departure,” says Hugo Spowers, an engineer and ex—racecar designer who later concocted some of the D.S.C.’s more fantastical devices. “It set the tone for an awful lot of possibilities whereby the boundaries of human experience could be pushed back, for very small sums of money, by amateurs.”
For Kirke, Baker’s flying machines were a revelation. “Awestruck,” he writes in his sprawling, unfinished history of the D.S.C., we realized that someone out there had built something that was so beautiful, so absolutely beyond bureaucracy and so totally dependent on using one’s faculties that it was a work of art within an infinite frame.” With characteristic bluster, Kirke convinced Baker that he was an experienced flier. After a fine takeoff and a less than fine landing, the men retired to a bar. There, over drinks (it’s safe to assume that nearly any significant conversation concerning the D.S.C. was held over drinks), the idea of a Dangerous Sports Club was born. It would be committed, says Baker, “to going and doing somewhat silly or dangerous things which were fun and would annoy bureaucrats.” In true Oxonian style, there would even be a club tie: a silver wheelchair with a blood-red seat, set on funereal black.
Back in Oxford, the new club’s members set about planning a series of “away days”: a “Tesco Cresta Run” down very steep hills in shopping carts (this, 20 years before Jackass); running with the bulls at Pamplona while riding skateboards and carrying umbrellas; an aborted attempt to jump a car across Tower Bridge’s open drawbridge. These were interspersed with more ambitious trips, including hang-gliding expeditions off of Mount Olympus (the first ever from that peak) and Mount Kilimanjaro. The abiding principle on all of these outings, says Kirke, was “one-third recklessness of innocence, tempered with two-thirds recklessness of contempt.”
Meanwhile, the club’s twin motifs of formal dress and abundant champagne were quickly set, and its growing reputation was attracting an eclectic group of Oxford undergraduates that included Alan Weston, an engineering student who went on to become one of the U.S. Air Force’s top rocket scientists; Tim Hunt, who is now an agent for the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts; and Phillip Oppenheim, a future member of Parliament and Treasury minister. “It was a very bleak period in England,” says Xan Rufus-Isaacs, an early member who is now an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles. “Thatcher had taken over. There was the whole punk movement. There was a very nihilistic atmosphere. And David was saying, ‘Let’s go do some stunts and stuff.’ It seemed to be something interesting and different and, apart from anything else, humorous.”
The press predictably ate up the image of renegade bluebloods, but it was only half true. The D.S.C. included the upper crust (Xan Rufus-Isaacs is more properly Lord Alexander Rufus-Isaacs, and another member, Tommy Leigh-Pemberton, who later died in a car accident, was the son of the governor of the Bank of England) but also members from the middle and working classes. Still, the class symbols were a potent form of branding. “We consciously pushed buttons that were English, specifically Oxford English,” says Martin Lyster, who joined the club later and wrote the book The Strange Adventures of the Dangerous Sports Club. “If you’re photographed with a bottle of champagne in your hand, it’s not entirely an accident.”
Burly, bearded, a decade older than most of the others, and with grand appetites for fine food, wine, and literature, Kirke played his Falstaff role to a T That he was a bit of a rogue—particularly when given access to others’ expense accounts—only added to the romantic image. His nickname was Uncle Dodge. “Wives, girlfriends, mothers loathe David,” says Rufus-Isaacs. “They see this creature dragging off their little loved ones and putting them in places where they can get seriously hurt.”
Maternal types were right to fret over one of the more spectacular away days: a cocktail party held on Rockall, a fleck of stormy granite more than 300 miles off the coast of Scotland. “What do people do in London? They have drinks parties in Chelsea or wherever,” says Kirke. “So we would have a drinks party as far away as possible.” Engraved invitations were sent out, requesting black-tie. “We invited all sorts of women who, curiously enough, suddenly developed prior engagements,” Kirke says, sighing merrily.
On the way to the port, the gang stopped to lift a sign reading INVALID TOILET from a restroom. They sailed for five days through Force 9 gales. (“At first, it was so awful, it was kind of entertaining,” says Alan Weston. “Then we all started getting sick.”) At one point, they narrowly avoided sinking by plugging a leak in the hull with a champagne cork. Finally, the sailors clambered up one of the island’s 70-foot cliffs and spent the night drinking champagne and dancing to the Beach Boys. When it was time to go, Kirke and Chris Baker leapt off a cliff into the ocean. The INVALID TOILET sign was left behind, affixed to a plaque that claimed the rock for England.
* * * * * *
“Oxford is like a fabulously interesting railway station,” David Kirke tells me over lunch, “with fascinating people coming and going all the time.” We had met at a pub across the street from the city’s famous Blackwell’s Bookstore where Kirke was holding court with a group that included a Jamaican Ph.D. candidate, a silent, mustachioed ex-officer of the Royal Air Force, and Shakespeare scholar Anthony Nuttall. After a few drinks, we headed to lunch nearby. Since I was paying, Kirke brought one of his friends—a septuagenarian banker named Ronnie who was leaving the next day for a windsurfing expedition in Sweden.
Nobody who has ever lunched with David Kirke is likely to forget the experience. Throughout the meal, he keeps up an intoxicating and baffling monologue—a running patchwork of erudition, circumlocution, conspiracy theories, shameless name-dropping (with particular attention to family lineage and whose father flew which aircraft in the war), lapses into French and Latin, aphorism upon aphorism and anecdote upon anecdote, related with the gusto of a man who has dined out on them for years. Except for a spell as drinks columnist for the laddie magazine Men Only, Kirke hasn’t held anything as bourgeois as a day job in decades, relying instead on the kindness of friends and sponsors. The bearlike bulk of Kirke’s younger days is gone, but the beard remains. At 58, he looks at least 10 years older.
Alone among its members, Kirke has devoted his life to the D.S.C. To him, the club was always about more than a mere adrenaline fix. It was a political, philosophical, and artistic enterprise. Kirke’s heroes include Rimbaud, T E. Lawrence, and Antoine de Saint-Exup6ry, the early aviator and author of The Little Prince, who disappeared over the Sahara at age 44. “The D.S.C. was never a thrill-seeking organization,” he says. “We’re interested in new things. You make a fool of yourself, your girlfriend leaves you, you lose money, but you may have advanced things a tiny little half-inch. It’s a vocation, strangely enough, not that different from a Catholic priest.”
Kirke was in Indonesia, thousands of miles from Somerset, when Dino Yankov was killed, and neither he nor the D.S.C. has been legally implicated in the death. Nevertheless, he is intent on participating in Aitkenhead and Wicks’s defense. “This is an extraordinary test case, about the right to experiment, at personal risk, versus social responsibility,” he says, pointing out that an average of nine people are killed each year playing cricket.
Yankov had signed a release concerning the dangers involved with the trebuchet. But if it can be shown that the trebuchet’s operators were negligent (owing to Britain’s strict contempt-of-court laws, the prosecution won’t release any details of its investigation before the trial), the two may face an uphill battle.
According to barrister Graham Blower, who handles many leading criminal cases in London, the argument that Yankov was a consenting adult will be of little use to the defendants. English law going back as far as 1846— in a case involving the trampling of an allegedly drunk man by a speeding horse and carriage—holds that a victim’s own recklessness does not excuse the actions of the accused. “You can’t say, ‘He’s a grown adult. He should have known better,” says Blower. The releases and club membership forms, he says, are often “literally not worth the paper they’re printed on.”
“Look,” says Kirke, “if Lindbergh had crashed into the Atlantic, he would have been flown right back to the U.S. and thrown in jail for multiple fraud and massive debt. Like all pioneers, he took huge risks.”
But doesn’t the equation change when those risks are being marketed to others? Kirke won’t answer directly. “I don’t want to see these guys go to prison,” he says with a sigh. “In part because, having done their catapult jump … it’s an extraordinary sensation.”
* * * * * *
Two events in the Dangerous Sports Club’s history magnificently crystallized the group’s multi-pronged mandate for thrills, art, anti-authoritarian symbolism, and creative transport. In the process, they made the club internationally famous.
Clifton Suspension Bridge is a masterpiece of Victorian engineering—a delicate filament strung 245 feet above the river Avon, between the cities of Bristol and Clifton. As the plaques on either end advertising the Good Samaritans’ suicide-hotline number attest, it’s a structure that fairly demands to be jumped off of.
In 1979, Chris Baker was living in an apartment 200 yards from the bridge. At the time, he was using bungee cords to tie his hang gliders to the roof of his car. “It was my turn to provide some entertainment for the club,” remembers Baker, who now owns and runs a bucolic cemetery not far from Bristol. “I remembered that, at school, we were shown a film of New Guinea vine jumpers who would build these bamboo towers, tie one end of the vine to the tower, the other to their ankles, and dive off,” he says. “The idea of getting rolls of bungee cord and jumping off the bridge came up. And I thought, Yes. Why not?”
Baker says he brought the idea to the club (Kirke disputes the account slightly, saying the conception was more of a group effort), and Alan Weston and fellow engineering student Simon Keeling had friends run some computer simulations. The idea of testing the principle with weights was a nonstarter. “We couldn’t very well call ourselves the Dangerous Sports Club and attach weights and see what happened,” says Baker. Invitations were sent out for April Fools’ Day 1979.
An enormous party was held at Baker’s house on the night before the jump. Baker’s girlfriend had stopped speaking to him on the grounds that he was about to kill himself, but midway through the party she called and said she had changed her mind. “So I left them all destroying my apartment and went to London to collect her,” Baker remembers. “I got back at half past six in the morning and they were all in a horrible state. I said, ‘Right, I’m just going to change into tails: ‘Ready for the undertaker’ was the joke.”
In the meantime, two of Weston’s sisters had independently called the police, imploring them to stop their brother from committing suicide. The bridge had been staked out since dawn. While Baker was changing, the cops finally gave up, leaving a precious window of opportunity.
“It never crossed my mind that they would jump without me,” Baker says, still a touch rueful. “It was my idea, my ropes, my bridge. as far as I was concerned. So I was walking back from the apartment and there are the bastards, jumping off the bridge.”
Baker at least had the consolation of watching his idea succeed mightily. Kirke went first, clutching a bottle of champagne that unfortunately tumbled from his hand on the way down. Weston, Keeling, and Tim Hunt followed. Kirke had alerted the Daily Mail, and photos were quickly beamed around the world. “We want to trigger a worldwide craze, he told the paper. “That’s our master plan.” For a while, at least, the craze remained a club affair. History’s second bungee jump was off the Golden Gate Bridge, which brought Kirke and company even more attention. Next was a jump off Colorado’s Royal Gorge Bridge, filmed for the television program That’s Incredible! Soon the club began staging bungee exhibitions around England, leaping from cranes at county fairs, store openings, and other gatherings. In 1981, a short film, The History of the Dangerous Sports Club, combining footage from the Kilimanjaro expedition and the Clifton-bridge jump, was released. The club even received the imprimatur of a high priest of subversive British silliness, Monty Python’s Graham Chapman, who would go on to participate in several group activities. Kirke calls Chapman, who died in 1989, “the mischievous older brother I never had.”
In 1983, Hugo Spowers had the idea for a bike race down the Matterhorn mountain in the Alps. The cyclists naturally would have parachutes to help them navigate the terrain. From there, it was a small step to sending all kinds of strange objects down the slopes, leading to the D.S.C.’s second great legacy: the surreal ski races.
“Think Fellini,” was Kirke’s instruction, and indeed the collection of vehicles that arrived in Saint-Moritz that winter would have pleased the director. They ranged from an ironing board, a baby carriage, and a tandem bicycle to a grand piano, a Louis XLV dining set, and a full crew boat, seating eight people. All were mounted on skis, and all provided magnificent crashes. “Kirke knocked himself unconscious by taking a C5 [electric scooter] down the slope,” says Mark Chamberlain, who—improbably, considering the company—had earned the nickname Mad Child for his willingness to try anything. “He must have been clocking about 95 mph. They were quite suicidal machines, really.”
The accompanying parties were equally wild, even by club standards. In attendance was the club’s mascot, Eric, a life-size mannequin in a full-body cast with an impressive hard-on. “It was incredibly hedonistic,” says Chamberlain. “I remember Hugo Spowers swinging on a chandelier at the Park Hotel in Saint-Moritz and it coming crashing down. We were setting off Cl explosive charges everywhere. It got to the point where we were jumping off the bar, trying to get into a cart filled with ice.”
The race was repeated in 1984 and 1985 with ever more elaborate devices, culminating in an aborted attempt to send a London double-decker bus down the slopes. Rufus-Isaacs had purchased the bus, and the group drove it to Saint-Moritz with great fanfare, attracting gawkers all along the way. Echoes of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters were entirely apt; with the psychedelic revolution spent, the D.S.C. had taken the same impulse and found a way to turn it outward, pushing the boundaries of experience with their bodies rather than their minds, while tweaking authority and having a grand time doing it. It was perhaps their last truly great moment.
* * * * * *
I am absolutely hopeless at business,” David Kirke says. By all accounts, this is a vast understatement. As the 80s rolled on, the question of making some sort of living inevitably began to plague the D.S.C. The bungee-jumping exhibitions—organized by Chamberlain and Martin Lyster—were bringing in some money, but the club was also searching for alternative sources of income. One plan involved branding a vintage of D.S.C. wine, complete with a label depicting a ski-jumping waiter. This scheme ended with predictable results once the crates of wine arrived at club headquarters.
Another idea was to open club membership to the public. “We’d get these people who were willing to pay 50 quid a year so they could have a card that said, ‘I’m a member of the D.S.C.,’” says Lyster. “We were grateful for their money. They came to the parties. And a few even got involved and became active members.” David Aitkenhead was among them.
Aitkenhead had left school at 15 and ended up working in a Harley-Davidson dealership in Somerset, selling spare parts. In 1984 he happened to catch a screening of The History of the Dangerous Sports Club and was entranced. A year later he sent in his £50 and began tagging along on bungee jumps.
Even as a newcomer, Aitkenhead sensed that the original club was unraveling. “By the time I came along,” he says, “a lot of the early members had gone. They were getting married, getting good jobs.”
One by one, Kirke’s Prince Hals were returning to the straight world. “David used to say that the one thing that united us all was a fear of a regular job,” says Rufus-Isaacs. “It’s a nice student ideal, but you can’t fucking live like that.”
Those who remained were finding the relationship with Kirke increasingly strained. “Martin and I would go all over the place doing these shows and we would see flick-all of the money,” says Chamberlain, now a cinematographer who works with Aardman Animation, in Bristol. (Kirke responds, “Every single penny we made with the D.S.C. would go out to every member of the D.S.C.”)
There were bigger projects—a helium-filled kangaroo floating across the Channel, a hang-gliding expedition to Ecuador, a doomed effort to send a giant inflatable ‘melon ball” (courtesy of Midori) across the Thames—hut these all required well-heeled sponsors, a class of people Kirke was almost pathologically adept at pissing off. “I think he had a fear of success,” says Chamberlain. “Whenever things looked like they were going properly, he’d panic and make sure there was a complication.”
Hugo Spowers went as far as to begin organizing his own group, the Alternative Sports Club. “I got very frustrated with his spectacular ability to bugger things up all the time,” says Spowers. “You won’t see a sponsor who’s dealt with the D.S.C. twice.” Kirke responded with an angry volley of legal threats, and Spowers backed down. “He’s fantastically creative, particularly when he’s trying to destroy something,” Spowers says.
Kirke’s fierce sense of proprietorship continues to this day. When he discovered that Lyster was publishing a book that would preempt his own, unfinished account of the club’s history (for which Kirke had received an advance from Penguin Putnam in 1989), he responded with the fury of a stung bear. His enemies “suspect I’m walking wounded and, like hyenas, they can bite pieces off me and slink away,” he wrote to Hubert Gibbs, a longtime D.S.C. member unlucky enough to have assumed the role of club “arbiter of fair play.” To Chris Baker he wrote, “To draw an analogy, anyone who volunteers for the British army who then volunteers for the I.R.A. knows it’s within the terms of the game that he will be hunted down for treason and killed on sight by former colleagues.” Later in that letter, Kirke got more to the point: “But then you see that (despite all my efforts to spread the load) it has been one man’s story throughout, even if it has been a memorable chapter or two in over 40 people’s lives.”
“When you get on David’s shit list,” says Lyster, “you get shit by the truckload.”
But above and beyond personal and financial difficulties, the Dangerous Sports Club’s biggest problem in the late 80s was simply that it was losing creative steam.
“There’s a huge difference between being a group of friends having a laugh and then basically having to perform at given times,” says Chris Baker. “Risking my life for my own entertainment was fair enough, but being a badly paid stuntman struck me as the worst of both worlds.”
When Kirke struck a deal with a Japanese TV company in 1988 to produce a movie that would combine several new stunts with old footage, one of the few people left for him to turn to was David Aitkenhead. Aitkenhead quit his job and moved into a rented hangar in Shropshire to construct machines for the new stunts. One of these was a human catapult.
* * * * * *
The Japanese film was eventually completed but it was not without its costs. One ill-conceived segment involved rolling the now repurposed Midori melon ball down a mountain in Scotland. With a 20-knot wind blowing upward, the sphere quickly pulled loose of its moorings and ripped itself to shreds. More seriously, another stunt called for Kirke to be shot off a cliff in Ireland by a device used to launch drones from aircraft carriers. The team had ordered a specially molded seat to protect Kirke’s back from the fearsome g-forces, but when it didn’t arrive in time, Kirke went ahead with an improvised seat of foam and duct tape. Slow-motion footage of the shot shows Kirke nearly flattened as he’s thrust forward, and the stunt left him with serious back injuries.
As if to underline the end of an era, Kirke’s past sins also began catching up with him. After an incident involving a borrowed American Express card (Kirke claims it had more to do with some political intrigue involving Dick Cheney), he was charged with fraud and, several months later, fled to France. Spowers and Rufus-Isaacs tracked him down there, where he was sleeping on the floor of an unheated farmhouse. Eventually, Kirke served four and a half months of a nine-month sentence. ’ I had a sabbatical,” he says, “much enjoyed and appreciated”
Meanwhile, two New Zealand entrepreneurs had begun offering bungee jumping to the paying public. Soon Aitkenhead had started one of the first commercial bungee operations in the U.K. In Oxford, Ding Boston, who had been peripherally involved with the D.S.C. until falling out with Kirke, created the Oxford Stunt Factory, which marketed alternative sports to students and staged bungee stunts for TV and film. What had been the D.S.C.’s ultimate anarchic expression was well on its way to becoming the thrill of choice for a generation of midlife-crisis sufferers—organized, bureaucratic, and very profitable.
Aitkenhead rode the boom for several years—at one point jumping as many as 400 people per weekend. Under the D.S.C. flag, he and a partner also found time to sail a modified septic tank across the Channel—a stunt that lacked something of the panache of classic D.S.C. events, though Kirke still showed up in France to buy a round of drinks. As the bungee market grew saturated, Aitkenhead got out and opened a scrapyard in Somerset.
Visions of a human catapult, however, stuck with him. The device in the Japanese film had been a Roman-style catapult, with a seat on the beam. Aitkenhead himself, looking somewhat awkward in the requisite top hat and tails, had been thrown off it into an Irish river. But a Roman catapult, Aitkenhead and Richard Wicks quickly determined, would not be sufficient to send customers the desired distance: 100 feet. For that, they would need a trebuchet. a far more powerful machine that uses a sling to transfer more energy to its missile.
In the early 1990s, an eccentric Englishman named Hew Kennedy had built an enormous trebuchet on his Shropshire estate. He was making news by flinging old cars, dead cows, and burning pianos into an empty field. Aitkenhead visited several times, at first to see whether the huge machine could be used to fire humans (the g-forces, Kennedy told him, would kill a person) and then to gather tips for his own, smaller version.
Construction began on weekends in the front yard of Aitkenhead’s countryside home. After several months, the men had created a machine capable of throwing a 100kilogram test weight 100 feet. ‘We thought, Right, that’s the difficult bit done. But little did we realize that what we’d done was the easy bit,” says Aitkenhead. A year passed, spent experimenting with nets. Finally, the two decided that it was time for a test run. “I was happy for Richard to be the first man to do it, and it worked beautifully. Then, the next day, I did it and it worked beautifully again.”
In 2000, Richard Wicks’s girlfriend, Stella Young, was thrown. The throw itself was perfect, but Young bounced out of the net and broke her pelvis, making nationwide headlines. With help from Kirke, the men negotiated with MTV, which wanted to film the trebuchet, to fund a larger net. On his 55th birthday, Kirke himself had a go, with local TV crews in attendance.
“My cousin Tony had the imprint of a net on his forehead. Someone twisted their foot. David Kirke pulled a muscle in his neck. Richard landed on his head and it went numb for half an hour on one side. I twisted my ankle. But it was all part and parcel of what was going on,” Aitkenhead says. “It was quite obviously dangerous and that’s all there was to it. There were no complaints.”
In 2001, Aitkenhead gave away the scrapyard, sold his house, and devoted himself to building an improved trebuchet at Middlemoor Water Park. The “Mark II” was ready six months later. “All the while, I was in touch with Ding Boston,” Aitkenhead says. “He said, ‘Look, if you do anything with this, let us know. We’ll come down and we’re happy to help, get involved. Or if you just want to throw us, great.”’
Boston—whose Stunt Factory has been banned from setting up at Oxford’s annual Fresher’s Fair, where clubs recruit newly arrived freshmen—offers a more passive account of his involvement. Stunt Factory members, he maintains, had already heard about the trebuchet and were intent on giving it a try. “I ask anybody what they would do in a situation like this. You can either say ‘No,’ which in my experience with intelligent 18-year-olds goes nowhere. Or, if you care for people who arc obviously going to go anyway, you accompany them and hope the collective experience will help [keep them safe].” Nevertheless, a link on the Stunt Factory’s Web site, later removed, listed human catapulting as one of the club’s activities, showed pictures of the trebuchet in action, and promised, “That could be you. No, really.”
In any event, Stunt Factory members attended three separate events with the trebuchet. By the time Dino Yankov fell to his death, the machine had been fired successfully at least 40 times.
Since investigators are staying mum until the trial, what exactly went wrong remains a mystery. “Trebuchets were known to be extremely accurate. That’s why they were still used for 100 or so years after cannons came in,” says Colonel Wayne Neel, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Virginia Military Institute who was one of five experts called in to examine the trebuchet. “You could pretty much put a shot in a bushel basket at a couple of hundred yards.”
There are a limited number of easily changed variables determining the shot’s distance, says Neel: the length of the sling used; the angle of the peg on top of the trebuchet’s beam, off which the sling flies; the amount of counterweight on the beam. “The things that can go wrong did go wrong,” Neel says. “The things that can be adjusted, they just didn’t have them adjusted right.” He pauses. “But, of course, basically the thing that went wrong was doing it in the first place.”
For what it’s worth, D.S.C. alumni, almost to a man, say that they would never have taken a ride on the trebuchet themselves. When they discuss the accident, it’s not long before old-fashioned Oxford snobbery peeks through. Nearly all offer up some pointed variation on the construction “David Aitkenhead is a nice guy, but…”
Kirke shakes his head sadly, saying, “This never would have happened if they were Oxford boys.”
* * * * * *
Some say that the tragedy was the inevitable result of marketing thrills to the public—a significant departure from the D.S.C. of old. “We were gentlemen adventurers who respected other people, did things themselves. We never, ever harmed anybody apart from ourselves,” says Mark Chamberlain. “When that happens, something is missing. And it has to do with the reasons why people are doing it.”
In a larger way, the tragedy may simply be the product of hanging on too long. “The D.S.C., in my view, stopped functioning around 1986. David Aitkenhead just came along when Kirke needed new playmates,” says Rufus-Isaacs.
“I’ve had some of the most fantastic times, with some of the most extraordinary people, doing the most unusual things, all over the world. And I only have one person to thank, and that’s David Kirke,” Chamberlain says. “But he’s living 20 years ago. Dave Aitkenhead is a nice enough guy, but the people who made up the D.S.C. were all real geniuses, in their own way. The thing is, you don’t come up with things on your own. We bounced ideas off each other. I don’t think there will ever be a group of people like the D.S.C. again, and why should there be?”
So, is there still a Dangerous Sports Club? Kirke bristles at the question. “There’s no way that I can take on Xan, because he’s bourgeois. I can’t take on Alan Weston, because he’s under U.S. Air Force regulations. I can’t take on Martin, because he’s been corrupted: But we’ve got people in 50 countries. There are Jesuit missionaries in the western part of China who directly relate. I have a guy in Algeria who’s very good. David Aitkenhead is still there. We’re also political. It’s an incredibly movable feast. And I’m an odd little cocked-up, goof-up, walkabout spider in the middle of the web.”
With the trial approaching, David Aitkenhead has moved in with his parents, picking up construction work to make ends meet. His trebuchet still stands in the clearing at Middlemoor Water Park, rust creeping across its base and weeds sprouting up through the holes in the net and over the spot where Dino Yankov came to rest.
David Kirke says that it’s finally time to complete his own book about the D.S.C. “Cervantes didn’t begin Don Quixote until he was 58,” he says. “[T. E. Lawrence’s] Seven Pillars of Wisdom was printed in a private edition of 150 books. If you’re going for literature, you’re in for the long haul.”
For the past several years, the chairman of the D.S.C. has also been trying to get a new project off the ground: a 25-foot-tall inflatable replica of a winged horse that Kirke hopes to fly 500 miles, from Mount Olympus into Libya. The 11-page pitch for the Pegasus Project asks for £100,000 and promises “a totally original, world first project.”
“I would like to have one more flying machine,” Kirke says wistfully, looking very tired. “I feel if I can get Pegasus off the ground I just might find myself in conversational distance from Saint-Exupery in the next life.”
After our lunch, I return from the bathroom to find Kirke talking with three nervous looking undergrads. “Are you a don?” one asks him. “Be irreverent. Ask questions,” Kirke signs off before adjusting his beret and disappearing out the door and down the streets of Oxford.
Earlier, he had outlined one other dream project. This one involved a return to Rockall: “What I really want to do is go back there again with two Wagnerian tenors and a Yamaha Clavinova and have a concert on that rock. And somehow or other we record it so that, long after we’re all dead, people will be enjoying the sounds of Wagner floating over the sea.”
It’s a lovely idea, with all the grace and wit and imagination worthy of the Dangerous Sports Club. The only question is whether anybody will be listening.