Monthly Archives: September 2012

‘A happy voyage to you…’

MASTER AND COMMANDER, by Patrick O’Brian, originally pubished in 1969
(My copy is from the series published in the 1990s with the wonderful Gary Hunt covers – much better than models dressed up in costume, hrumpf)

Bookcase 3, shelf 7, book 24

It had to happen sooner or later. The dice would select a book lurking in a series, one which could not be explored or explained without reading others. Or they would pick a book which started a series, and I wouldn’t be able to stop reading. There are twenty-one books in Patrick O’Brian’s astonishing Aubrey / Maturin series (If you count the one left unfinished at the author’s death), and I’ve been zooming through them, the dice having happily given me the first, Master and Commander. (And no, it’s nothing like the film with Russell Crowe, thank heavens.)

So what is it about these books, set in a version of Nelson’s Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars? Why are they so addictive? And why do they excite such passionate attachment among their fans?

It may be heresy, but I have to say it: they’re not all perfect, far from it, but M&C is a stonking start. O’Brian sweeps you straight in. The language, even the punctuation – they could belong, sometimes, to the early nineteenth century, and it comes as no surprise that O’Brian adored Jane Austen and collected early editions of her books. You don’t have to understand the nautical vocabulary (I still have absolutely no idea what a ‘dog-pawl’ is and I’m not sure I want to know), but whether you do or not, it all helps to create an atmosphere which encourages readers to become absorbed in this particular world. And O’Brian was meticulous about the language he used, incidentally – it is authentic, substantiated in all the mountains of research and contemporary accounts in which he immersed himself. But that’s not it, though it’s a part of it.

It has to be the core relationship, the one between the comparatively straightforward and bluff Jack Aubrey RN and the considerably more enigmatic Stephen Maturin, and between them and various other characters who materialize and vanish and come back again, or who are relatively minor constants. You come to know these people: Killick the steward, Bonden the bosun, Mr Pullings – and you become involved. Will the delightful Pullings ever make captain, even though he has no ‘pull’ in the Admiralty? Will Killick stop grumbling? Who will get killed in the next engagement? Will Stephen’s spying activities mean he gets tortured again, and will he ever be able to break free from his attachment to – enough… As one reviewer noted, one key to the series’ success was that ‘times change, but people don’t.’ And the people are exceptionally well drawn, even if it is sometimes easy to forget that in all the excitement and the recreation of a vanished world.

Master and Commander is where Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin encounter each other for the first time; the former irritates the latter at a concert by beating time rather enthusiastically. A duel is averted when Jack is promoted and, in the consequent spirit of bonhomie, apologizes to Stephen. He then recruits the financially embarrassed  Stephen as his ship’s surgeon, and that is fortunate – fortunate for us as readers, because Stephen knows very little of the ways of Nelson’s Navy, and can be an ‘interpreter’ for the rest of us, especially in the very early books. He is experiencing things like the sudden uprush of activity when the watches change for he first time, and so are we; to a certain extent we see this world mainly through Stephen’s eyes. And of course O’Brian had no idea, when he delivered the manuscript for Master and Commander, that this would be the first in a series of over twenty books that would occupy the rest of his life and define his literary reputation.

He was already, though, a huge fan of the period and of Nelson, and it’s his knowledge of that, and his deep enthusiasm for it as well, which illuminates all of the books. Some of the action may seem exaggerated or unlikely, but there is scarcely a naval incident that isn’t based in some way on reality, and the subplots are thoroughly researched as well. The actions in which Aubrey’s ship, the Sophie, becomes involved are based on the experiences of Thomas Cochrane, and Cochrane is (largely) the model for Jack Aubrey. Maturin, it has been said, is more like the rather complex and troubled author. It’s a real achievement to take all that thorough-going research and knowledge and transform it into something as exciting and involving as Master and Commander – let alone the other books in the series.

It comes as quite a surprise now to realise how slow-burning the series was. Master and Commander wasn’t immediately picked up by a British publisher, for example, and the early reviews simply compared Jack Aubrey to Horatio Hornblower, usually to the former’s disadvantage. But slowly the word began to spread. O’Brian’s books picked up illustrious fans who weren’t afraid to sing their praises, and so the series grew into what it is today: something of a global phenomenon, if a somewhat select one. And one with something of a catching style for which I must apologize (no risk of duels, anyway)…

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A Rough Guide to the past

THE TIME TRAVELLER’S GUIDE TO MEDIEVAL ENGLAND by Ian Mortimer, 2008/9

Bookcase 10, shelf 5, book 22

The subtitle is ‘A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century’ – and that’s exactly what this is. When the dice ‘chose’ this book for me, I was a little disappointed; I’d read it not long ago, and was sure that I could remember a lot of it. I didn’t particularly want to read it again so soon, but the dice select what the dice select.

Re-reading it made me wonder if I’d actually bothered to read it the first time – there was so much that I didn’t remember, or only partly recalled. I don’t think that’s down to me, though (no, really). I think it is because of the fact that this is an extraordinarily dense book, crammed with interesting information. I thought I knew something about life in Medieval Britain – it wasn’t my specialist study period, but I’ve worked on medieval archaeological sites – but there is something on almost every page to surprise and entertain. And it’s written in an accessible, easy style.

I suppose it all starts with L P Harley: ‘The past is another country. They do things differently there.’ With that in mind, the idea of a something which is almost a travel guide to the past seems logical and almost inevitable – and here it is. Ian Mortimer starts with the idea of the past ‘happening’, of walking down a road in a Medieval town, hearing people talking and shouting, seeing the sights and smelling (phew) the smells.

And that is indeed a useful place to begin, and the opening for one of the most entertaining history books I’ve read in a while. Entertaining and informative. Unlike many historians, Mortimer doesn’t spurn re-enactors: in fact, he says ‘collectively they remind us that history is more than an educational process’. I’m used to the world of experimental archaeology, where attempting to recreate something from the (extreme) past is an acceptable form of research, whether that something is a way of making beer or of moving a huge stone over hundreds of miles. It’s less common to find historians embracing this approach, at least in the imagination, and then writing a bestselling book embodying it. Mortimer selected the fourteenth century because ‘…it comes closest to the popular conception of what is “medieval”, with its chivalry, jousts, etiquette, art…’ and, of course, with cathedrals, revolt and insurrection, war with France, famine and the Black Death.

But for me, it’s the incidental information that you pick up that I enjoy the most. Snippets. So let’s have some, picked completely at random while flicking through the book:

  • It’s a multi-lingual society – not just English. French, Latin and, depending on where you are, the Celtic languages are all in common use and likely to be overheard on the streets. And people’s English is ‘a little rough around the ages’. It’s, er, robust. That’s seen in place names like Shitbrook Street and Pissing Alley (and quite evident in Chaucer’s work, of course). In fact, there are a lot of ‘English’ people whose English is not fluent.
  • Football is popular, though not the game as played today (of course); it’s more like the semi-riots that still take place in a few villages today under the flag of tradition. There are no rules as such, though there are some which try and ban it completely. Huge numbers of people take part, there’s a vast amount of noise and fighting, many get injured and some even die. One William de Spalding, for example, managed to kill a friend during a match when they collided so violently that De Spalding’s knife went through its sheath and into his friend.
  • People caught poaching game no longer have their hands cut off, as in the previous century, ‘but loss of limb is still meted out on their animals’ – so a poacher who managed to only get a fine may see his dog lose a paw.

Medicine is a strange mix of the rational (a truss for hernia) and treatments which appear somewhat more magical – annointing yourself with fat from a roasted cat (!), and frying beheaded dung beetles and crickets in oil to treat a bladder stone. Your doctors will want to look at your pee in order to determine what is wrong with you, by the way.

  • Cow’s milk is suitable only for cooking, and for old woman and children. Each member of a monastic community is allocated a gallon of ale a day. And as for monks not eating meat – well, the monastic Rule states that they should not have meat in the refectory. So there’s another room, the misericord (place of mercy), in which they can eat meat with impunity. Westminster’s Benedictine monks manage to justify eating bacon, however, and bacon and eggs are served in the refectory as a treat before Lent.
  • If you’re a monk in an urban monastery, you’ll live – on average – about five years less than you would if you hadn’t entered the monastery but had lived outside. It’s the infectious disease risk that makes the difference. Yes, you have better sanitation and a much better diet, but you’ll also have a shorter life. And if you die while staying in someone else’s house, the goods you have with you automatically become his property.

More seriously than all of those (not that some of them aren’t serious), looking at history this way does bring up the whole issue of how we perceive the past. Traditionally, history is deeply concerned with assessing, selecting, interpreting the evidence available, and that’s generally documentary evidence. Evidence like this imposes boundaries – because all you can really assess is the evidence. Approaching history as something that was lived, and lived by people who were not that different from us, certainly makes you think. And so does this book.