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‘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)…


Fantasy island – sigh…

THE TREEHOUSE BOOK, by Peter and Judy Nelson with David Larkin, published in 2000

Bookcase 9, shelf 5, book 11

It’s everyone’s fantasy. Well, I think it is (and I’m not sure I want to know people who don’t share it – thus, probably, ruling out at least 50% of my friends).

Or maybe I’ve just been too deeply influenced by discovering Lothlorien at an impressionable age. Or maybe not – Bart Simpson has one, after all, and you can’t get much further from one of Tolkien’s elves than Bart.

I was supposed to be being sensible, buying a selection of book tokens to be sent off to far-flung friends’ children one Christmas, and my attention wandered. Perched temptingly on a nearby shelf, this book spoke to me of freedom, of woods, of escape and adventure – and, above all, not remotely of a ‘festive’ Tesco’s. I had to have it. 

I was able to excuse buying it because it was practical. I knew that I was extremely unlikely to add any such structure to one of my trees but, should the inclination take me, here was the ‘how-to’ book. See? There are drawings; there are plans. Practical.

Seriously, it is practical.

There are before and after shots – well, during and after:

There is plenty of advice on planning and choosing the right sort of tree, though admittedly – and unsurprisingly – as an American book, it does tend to assume you live on the other side of the Atlantic; the basic principles are the same. Most of the thoroughly practical stuff is at the beginning of the book, and then you get into the more inspirational examples.

Mind you, there is plenty of practical information there too, should you suddenly find yourself in possession of a wood in Washington State… But let’s stop pretending: for most people, this book is about fantasies. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

The majority of the treehouses – the authors are specialist treehouse builders – are in rural locations, but some are more urban. Wherever they are, the text provides just enough information to involve you in the specific house, and each one is well illustrated, generally with both interior and exterior shots. And some of them – well, I wanna!

How about a treehouse which is so remote you have to make the first part of the journey to it by canoe (or on cross-country skis when the river freezes). And imagine the logistics of building the thing in the first place – every single plank had to also come in by canoe, and the house took three years to complete. And it’s in use throughout the year (the previous pictures are of the same house, which is in New England), and you can just make out a set of snowshoes underneath the house, which is built on hemlocks.

Incidentally, this particular house gives me a very bad case of woodpile-envy disorder, let alone treehouse envy or wildness envy… But what would happen if you broke a leg falling off those snowshoes? Hm? Just as well it’s fantasy, then.

There’s a large section on children’s treehouses, some of which I feel are not really treehouses as such – more garden buildings. However some undoubtedly are true treehouses, and again I wouldn’t say no if I bought a house with any of them already installed. This rather less remote and idealistic example is in Washington State. Yes, please.

And then there are the little details. Perhaps some of them could inspire a more real-world use (well, more ‘real-world’ than having to transport everything by canoe). Check out these steps:

I could do that…

Not really a book review, for which I apologise. Normal service will be resumed as soon as I stop fantasising about finding a remote lake somewhere and building a treehouse in the surrounding woods in which to write a masterpiece. At this precise moment, I’d settle for anywhere the RAF were not practising low flying. Earplugs, I need earplugs!