Saturday, February 7, 2009

Futtocks, shrouds, loblolly boys

Night Birds on Nantucket (The Wolves of Willoughby Chase) Victory Master and Commander
After the birth of my third child a few months ago, I found myself with a desperate urge to read about shipboard life. I don't know whether it was a primal response to the watery nature of birth (my waters broke early so those few days were rather awash), or whether I was just yearning to be afloat, far far from the cares of attending to three pre-school children! Whatever the reason, I ran away to sea.

First I re-read an old favourite, Night Birds on Nantucket (The Wolves of Willoughby Chase). It begins with the delightful Dido Twite comatose on the deck of a whaling boat, being kept alive with whale oil and molasses, and moves on to a fiendish plot to blow up the English House of Parliament with a long gun positioned on Nantucket. Simple pleasure. Then I moved on to Victory by Susan Cooper, which tells the tale of a girl in the present, born into a sailing family, and her connection with a sailor on the HMS Victory. I read it in a single sitting, and it brought a tear to my eye. After that, I considered Moby Dick, but I don't have a copy and wasn't about to head out to my local library in my pajamas, leaky breasts and all, just so I could stay afloat between feeds.

Then, serendipity. I remembered seeing pictures of boats on some books at a friend's house. I called my friend, and he provided a home delivery service of the first half dozen books in the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian - along with an enormous wodge of French cheese. (Incidentally, but not unimportantly, let me note here that if you ever want to give a real gift to a postpartum mum (and I'm not talking baby socks), give her French cheese. After nine months of cheese free pregnancy, and a day of labour, and a week of sleepless nights, French cheese is just the thing to raise her from the dead. Fromager d'Affinois, to be precise.) Anyway, the time (and the cheese) was ripe, I launched in, and I've been at sea with Jack and Stephen ever since. (I'm now in book 8.)

The books, which begin with Master and Commander and improve after this, chart the relationship between a ship's captain, Jack Aubrey, and his best friend and surgeon, Stephen Maturin. Jack is jovial, fat, and much given to weak witticisms, which make him collapse with laughter. He's a brilliant sailor, and an utter naif ashore. Conversely, Stephen is sallow, dour, an oaf at sea, but a cunning intelligence agent, a renowned naturalist and a gifted surgeon. The story follows their adventures through the wars between England and France, Spain and the United States (not to mention the minor powers).

It's a modern Odyssey, and should be approached as one story over a leisurely 20 (yes, 20) books. Threads disappear and reappear several books later, whether it is a love interest, an old enemy, a surgical incident, or a little joke. The dialogue reminds me of Jane Austen's gentle wit. O'Brian has an acute ear for conversation, and picks out idiosyncrasies which enthral the reader. Jack, for example, frequently begins one platitude, and ends with another.

For all Jack's cheerful idiocies, he is a canny sailor and a gifted violinist. Jack and Stephen, who plays the 'cello, spend evenings in the captain's cabin trying out new music, and practicing old favourites. In peacetime, when they're not playing music, or attending poetry competitions, they enjoy wonderful food - fresh roasted coffee, drowned baby, soused hog's head - that is, until the food runs out and they're down to salt pork and ship's biscuits. I learned that weevils taste bitter; maggots just feel soft and cold in your mouth.

Stephen is a gift to the landlubber reader. I've barely been on a boat, let alone at sea on a sailing ship, and so I am grateful for him. When he decides to go for a spontaneous solo swim, just as the boat is turning and thus narrowly avoids drowning; when he trips over ropes and is hit in the head by spars; when he absent-mindedly walks through tar then all over the newly washed decks; when he mixes up east and west, north and south, starboard and larboard; when, after a decade at sea, he still can't get into or out of a boat safely, then I feel there's a place on the ship for me.

The books are written with great good humour; I find myself laughing out loud at them in public places (trams, trains, waiting rooms). And they are gripping; even I, who thought myself completely disinterested in war, am utterly enthralled by the fire and heat of battle, and the gory surgery that must follow. The language is beautiful: the words are rich and gracious, and redolent of the nineteenth century. Close male friends address each other as 'joy' (belowdecks use far fouler language), and some of the mannerisms are so addictive that I find them slipping out in my own conversation. I recently startled my husband by saying Prithee...

Although my friends are probably not so grateful (they now roll their eyes when I mention these books), I thank heavens that this is a long series. Because when it ends, I'm going to cry, and then start at the start again. I'm so hooked that I've even diversified. I found a picture book of cross-sections of the HMS Victory, and fish it out to show poor unsuspecting dinner guests where the orlop is. And I spent a small fortune on an old book, Epics of the Square-Rigged Ships, just because it had photographs of a barque in full sail, and of the heart stopping view up the mainmast.

> Joan Aiken Night Birds on Nantucket (The Wolves of Willoughby Chase) (London: Jonathan Cape, 1966, but new editions are widely available); Susan Cooper Victory (London: Random House, 2006); Patrick O'Brian Master and Commander (first in a long series) (lots of editions); Stephen Biesty Cross-Sections: Man of War (London: Dorling Kindersley, 1993); DW Domville-Fife Epics of the Square-Rigged Ships (London: Seeley, 1958).

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