Patrick O’Brian’s fictional hero Jack Aubrey was wounded at the Battle of the Nile, and often expresses his great reverence for Nelson, with whom he once dined as a young officer. I think I first came across O’Brian’s series of Aubrey & Maturin novels at the Hawkenbury Allotment Holders’ summer show in Tunbridge Wells’ Dunorlan Park, when a little pile of crisp paperbacks on a book-stall with enticing pictures of sailing-ships on the covers called to me and I handed over a couple of quid.
I was hooked from the start. There’s something about these books that makes me feel deeply happy. I can’t really explain it - I don’t know how to sail, and crossing the English Channel on a P&O ferry in only the slightest choppy weather turns me a light shade of green. I‘m ignorant of any significant naval ancestors (though surely practically every British citizen must have them!); the nearest I can get to a family connection is Dad’s role in The Onedin Line as James Onedin’s crusty old father-in-law. And yet I have re-read these books more than any others in my possession. I guess though, that there’s no big mystery here - what catches at my heart and imagination is the superb quality of Patrick O’Brian’s writing.
Many people say that there’s something of Jane Austen in these naval adventures set in the early nineteenth-century, and certainly, the subtly-layered portraits of characters and situations bring her to mind, but there is also the deep learning behind the work, the thrilling accounts of dangers at sea, the references, through Maturin’s character, to politics, scientific and philosophical developments, and last but not least, the enduring friendship, through many difficulties, of its two main protagonists.
I met an older lady once at a book club meeting who rolled her eyes when I mentioned the Aubrey-Maturin books. “Oh,” she said, “My husband has all of them on top of his dresser in our bedroom, never stops reading ‘em...”. And I heard once of a Patrick O’Brian ‘Widows’ Club in the West Indies, whose members’ husbands are always off re-enacting the book’s battles and manoeuvres in their sailing boats. My ambitions don’t stretch that far, but I must make an effort to bump The Victory at Portsmouth and the Chatham Historic Dock-Yard off my wish-list.
When I was younger, you could wait years for a movie to come round on the box. These days you can have an allocated shelf for favourite DVDs, and surely most of us has a film we put on when the old man or woman is away, and we’re free to watch in contented solitude. My husband, a man of discernment and wit in so many ways (tee hee), often reaches for There’s Something About Mary once I’m out of the way. I always watch Peter Weir’s wonderful rendition of Master and Commander. I saw it first on the big screen, thankfully, as it deserves at least one viewing at the size it was made for, but it still thrills me every time I see it on my old tv.
A couple of weeks ago we drove down to Hastings to see my Mum, and stopped off in the town to get some shopping. I was delighted to realise, seeing all the booted and tri-cornered families streaming towards the Old Town, that it was Dress Like a Pirate Day, and even more excited to find, in a secondhand bookshop, a copy of The Thirteen-Gun Salute, the next unread Aubrey-Maturin book in the series.
Roll on Summer Holidays and uninterrupted reading time!