Cochrane the Dauntless – David Cordingly

Lord Thomas Cochrane was the real life basis of two of the most swashbuckling characters in fiction, both C S Forester’s Horatio Hornblower (12 book series) and Patrick O’Brien’s Jack Aubrey (20 book series) take a lot from the actual exploits of this now largely forgotten British naval hero. Amazingly they probably had to tone it down in the fictional versions for some of the actual exploits of Cochrane are so unbelievable that they are beyond what even a fictional hero would attempt. Examples such as the attack of the HMS Speedy against a much larger Spanish vessel where Cochrane reasoned that if he sailed right up alongside the Spanish vessel its guns would fire harmlessly over the top of his own ship whilst he could issue broadside after broadside into its lower decks. As the Spanish sailors abandoned their guns and tried to board the Speedy he sailed away a few yards, then as they went back to their guns he came alongside and started firing again. Eventually the Spanish ship surrendered and was sailed away to a British held port by a portion of the crew of the Speedy. Lord Cochrane was a consummate sailor and during his time on board had learnt a lot of the skills of his men, this ability to muck in if needed alongside leading from the front with boarding parties earned him considerable respect from his crew a lot of whom followed him from ship to ship as he progressed from the tiny Speedy to much larger frigates.

In spite of his seamanship and skill as a coastal raider, both for taking enemy ships and destroying fortifications Cochrane himself never made it higher than Captain in the British navy and this was largely due to his inability to stay silent when faced with any real or perceived affront to his position. He continually annoyed his superior officers, even pressing for the Admiral he was ultimately responsible to during one battle to be court martialed, and also during his years in parliament as MP for Westminster annoyed most of the other parliamentarians with his continual pressing of causes that he had already lost and outspoken speeches condemning his naval commanders. His autobiography, written in his eighties, reopened a lot of the wounds he had dealt in his twenties and thirties and left him even fewer friends amongst the great and the good. Cochrane however always believed he was right and everyone else was wrong.

David Cordingley has produced a splendid book about this complex character using not only Cochrane’s, somewhat biased, autobiography but offsetting this with admiralty reports, letters, ships logs and other evidence such as the diary and correspondence of Captain Marryat who served as a junior officer under Cochrane before becoming famous as a novelist. The book is comprehensive with numerous maps, pictures, cutaway drawings of two of Cochrane’s ships, bibliography, index and most importantly a glossary of naval terms for those of us less familiar with them. At 362 pages, excluding all the extra items detailed previously, Cordingly gave himself space to explore his subject and it is a fascinating read. From rising naval star to disgraced prisoner (after being implicated in a stock market fraud that he probably wasn’t actually involved in but which his superiors used as a convenient way of getting rid of a noisy thorn in their side), to signing up to be admiral of the separatist navy under the Chilean independence leader Bernardo O’Higgins and helping force the Spanish out of South America Cochrane led an exciting life and the book reflects that. Cordingly isn’t shy about documenting Cochrane’s faults as well, worst of which was his impetuous nature which got him into more problems than was necessary.

Amazingly after his success as a South American mercenary captain helping to gain independence for not only Chile but Peru and Brazil as well he arrived back in Britain where his various sins were forgiven and he was promoted to Rear Admiral and eventually died, aged eighty four, as a full Admiral. I heartily recommend this biography of a supreme sailor and complex character who is sadly barely known today despite his influence on writers as diverse as Arthur Conan Doyle and Bernard Cornwell. His adventures are as exciting as any fictional character and Cordingly’s descriptions are very well written.

Typhoid Mary – Anthony Bourdain

First published by Bloomsbury in America in 2001, this is the 2005 UK edition, why we had to wait four years for the book to come out in the UK is a mystery, maybe they thought Typhoid Mary, or Mary Mallon to give her her proper name wasn’t that well known over this side of the Atlantic. The author is Anthony Bourdain a celebrity chef in his native America who morphed into a travel presenter on TV whilst also writing several books of which this is the most unusual as it is the only one not based on his own career. Initially he seems drawn to Mary as a fellow cook and this is by far the most sympathetic telling of her life that I have read, emphasising the stresses of working in a kitchen and her total disbelief that the typhoid cases happening around her had anything to do with her as she was so healthy. In fact she was the first ever identified asymptomatic carrier of a disease so she remained perfectly well but everything she touched became infected. This would probably be OK if all the food she prepared for her various wealthy patrons had been cooked but there would be salads, ice-creams etc all of which could have been lethal.

Mary is known to have infected fifty three people with typhoid of which three died but to the end of her days never seemed to have grasped that she was a carrier. She was employed by various rich families between 1900 and 1907 and must have been a good cook to be able to deal with the demands of such a job where her employers would have expected new and interesting dishes almost every day especially whilst entertaining their friends. This is the basis of Bourdain’s interest in her, his own descriptions of life in a professional kitchen where those people outside the four walls of the hot and busy kitchen are largely treated with contempt by those inside as nothing else matters apart from getting the food out are somewhat worrying and I’m glad I never had an opportunity to eat anywhere he was cooking.

In 1907 after being identified by George Soper as the probable source of the infections she was forcibly incarcerated on North Brother Island off the coast of New York but not until after Soper had made several cack handed attempts to obtain blood and stool samples even at his first go confronting her in the kitchen of current employer and demanding samples there and then. Needless to say Mary saw him off with a carving fork she had to hand. Ultimately she was detained by five policemen and a female doctor who ended up sitting on Mary as she tried to escape from the ambulance. Bourdain has nothing but contempt for Soper, not just from the inappropriate ways he confronted Mary Mallon but also for his constant self promotion as the person who stopped Typhoid Mary. The cover of the book is based on an illustration used in one of the articles in the New York American which reported on her detention in 1909.

She was to spend three years on North Brother Island before a press campaign managed to get her released in 1910 on condition that she regularly reported to the Department of Health and stopped cooking. It may seem surprising that such a campaign was started but it must be understood that Mary had not been convicted of anything and was simply being held under health statutes without trial or any possibility of a trial. However being a cook was the one thing she was good at and soon after she had started work as a laundress she went back to cooking although no longer in smart houses but in mass canteens, finally detained again five years later whilst working at the Sloane Hospital for Women and it is at this point that Bourdain finally moves his position from being sympathetic to her plight to some condemnation that she was working supplying food to neonatal wards. This time there would be no release and she remained on North Brother Island for the final twenty three years of her life. Despite being clearly unhappy about the danger she was potentially causing to new borns at the end of her cooking career Bourdain still has a regard for her and at the end of the book describes visiting her grave almost as a pilgrimage.

The book is very well written and I found myself reading it at one sitting as I was drawn into the sad story of Mary Mallon’s life. Bourdain was a well known user of narcotics, mainly cocaine and heroin especially in his early career, possibly as a coping mechanism for the stress in his job, and committed suicide in 2018 whilst filming his travel/cookery programme in France.

Shackleton – Ranulph Fiennes

This fascinating biography of Sir Ernest Shackleton is written by Sir Ranulph Fiennes both knighted for their services to exploration and it is particularly interesting that Fiennes is able to add his own experiences of polar expeditions to accounts of Shackleton’s. He has previously written a biography of Sir Robert Scott, Shackleton’s original polar commander and then major rival in attempts to reach the South Pole and he treats each man fairly unlike the earlier biographies of Scott and Shackleton by Roland Huntford who was very much against Scott and pro Shackleton.

At 375 pages plus extensive index, appendix and bibliography this book could well be seen as the definitive biography of one of the foremost polar explorers of the so called ‘Heroic Age’, i.e. the early 20th century even though he never actually made it to the South Pole. The closest he got was one hundred miles away from it, setting at the time the record for furthest south on 6th January 1909 along with Jameson Boyd Adams, Eric Marshall and Frank Wild. This record would not be beaten until Roald Amundsen actually reached the pole on 14th December 1911. Fiennes makes the point that if he had been on his own Shackleton would probably have risked another 6 to 10 days march to the actual pole but concern for his men made him turn back due to the low level of rations still available to them. This for me is one of the defining differences between Scott and Shackleton, the disappointment on not achieving his goal was considerably offset by the fact that they all made it home safely, unlike Scott who two years later chose to press on and ultimately this cost not only his own life but that of his team members. Fiennes at this point is able, through his own experiences, to give an excellent account of just what happens to the body in the extreme cold pulling sledges as the daily rations have to be reduced in order to complete a goal. He never got as extreme as Shackleton but the explanations as to just how tough the going must have been are given extra colour by having this happen to himself and his team mate Mike Stroud.

Shackleton is however probably most famous for his third expedition, which turned into his biggest disaster as his ship, Endurance, was torn apart by the ice and he was forced to lead a completely different expedition to that intended as he rescued all his men from what seemed like certain death including the amazing crossing of the Weddell Sea in a tiny boat, less than 23 feet long. Here Fiennes’s descriptive powers really come into their own giving a fuller understanding of just what Shackleton and his five compatriots went through, including Tom Crean who I wrote about back in March 2019. Fiennes has also crossed the ocean in a small boat as part of his five year Trans Globe expedition which visited both poles travelling over land and sea although not the extremely hazardous 800 mile trip from Elephant Island to South Georgia undertaken by Shackleton and his men to get help for those left behind.

Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, to give him his full name, has written twenty five books mainly about his expeditions or biographies of fellow explorers and is an excellent story teller, really involving the reader in the hardships and triumphs of global exploration whilst seeking to rediscover the men behind the stories. He is frank about Shackleton’s appalling business sense which left him always short of funds and never as fully equipped as he should have been for any of his expeditions whilst making the point that the Royal Geographic Society, which could have been a potential major backer was very much committed to Scott so were positively against any support for Shackleton. His dalliances with other women outside of his marriage are also conjectured, along with the never ending support of his long suffering wife with a husband who was rarely even in the same country never mind at home. This is not a painted over all goody goody biography and is all the better for show all aspects of Shackleton’s character. The book was published by Michael Joseph at the beginning of the month and I have a signed copy.

I’d like to finish this review exactly as Fiennes does with a quote from another polar explorer and geologist from the ‘heroic age’ Sir Raymond Priestley who was part of expeditions by both Shackleton and Scott which I think perfectly sums up why I have a lifelong admiration for Shackleton.

For scientific leadership, give me Scott. For swift and efficient travel, Amundsen. But when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems to be no way out, get on your knees and pray for Shackleton.

Kierkegaard’s Cupboard – Marianne Burton

A collection of poems inspired by the life and works of Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard, what an unusual idea and so it had to be bought and read if only for the concept. What I didn’t expect was just how readable Burton’s poetry is, and how difficult to put the book down proved to be. It is only a slim volume but I read it within a couple of hours of purchasing, this was helped by the fact that each poem is a variation on the sonnet form and at least retains the limit of fourteen lines even if Burton doesn’t keep to iambic pentameter and certainly not to the normal eight line, six line stanzas structure. This made it an ideal book to have with lunch as I could read a poem then have a bite of lunch or a swig of beer whilst thinking about it before diving back in to the next poem; which made for a very enjoyable, and enlightening, hour and a half in a very good pub.

The book is split into six sections, ‘Childhood’, ‘Regine’, ‘Writings’, ‘After the Corsair’, ‘The Moment’, ‘Death’ and there are fifty poems spread through these sections along with one extra right at the front entitled ‘How To Write A Preface’. As stated above all the poems have just fourteen lines but Burton manages to pack a lot into her self imposed constraint and each section has a short biographical note which introduces the poems to come and places their significance in the life of Kierkegaard. ‘Childhood’, ‘Writings’ and ‘Death’ are pretty self explanatory but the others need explaining if, like me, you don’t know much about Kierkegaard. Regine Olson was an eighteen year old whom Kierkegaard was briefly engaged to but he called the engagement off when he realised that marriage was not for him and he could only make her unhappy trapped in a relationship with him. He never got over the loss of her though and had a cupboard which contained all the letters and mementos of their year together and that is what gave this book its title. The Corsair was a Danish satirical magazine which lampooned Kierkegaard not just for his writings and beliefs but also his appearance and the lost relationship with Regine and the resultant publicity made him a figure of fun for a while. ‘The Moment’ refers to a series of tracts by Kierkegaard criticising the Danish Lutheran church. It should be noted here that in the only factual error I have found in the book Burton states that Regine was seventeen when she was engaged to Søren but she was born in January 1822 and they became engaged in September 1840 so she was definitely eighteen, Søren by the way was twenty seven at the time.

A lot of the poems are written in the first person so the book reads as though Kierkegaard himself is talking to us through the medium of verse. Three particularly intriguing poems all have the same title ‘It was Early Morning. Abraham Rose’, these are in ‘The Writings’ section of the book and tell three very different versions of the biblical story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac one after another. Kierkegaard had a strong personal religious belief but an often fractious relationship with the dominant church in Denmark and some of the strongest works in this collection are in ‘The Moment’ where Burton takes on his mantle in a critique of the state run religion and its materialistic clergy. I must look out for Burton’s first collection of poems ‘She Inserts the Key’ as this collection has whetted my appetite for more.

I purchased the book last month during a trip to the small Shropshire town of Bishop’s Castle where there is a quirky shop called Poetry Pharmacy, which mainly sells poetry but also has other interesting books and a small children’s section along with a coffee shop, it’s definitely worth a visit if you ever find yourself deep in rural Shropshire.

Chekhov: A Life in Letters – edited by Gordon McVay

Rather than produce a standard biography, Gordon McVay has translated and edited a selection of letters from Anton Chekhov which give a wide view of his interests and career development from starting medical school in Moscow in 1879 through to his final letter in June 1904 written the day of his heart attack which would ultimately prove fatal four days later. There are extensive notes that put the letters into context and this has proved to be an excellent use of the material as Chekhov is a lively letter writer and travelled extensively so his correspondence is full of detailed descriptions of his experiences both good and bad. My copy is the Folio Society 1994 edition bound in black buckram and embossed with Chekhov’s signature across both covers. The book is currently available as a Penguin Classics edition. To give a feel for the letters I’ll selected a few extracts and will add them between paragraphs in this blog.

23 December 1888

That this represents just a tiny fraction of Chekhov’s letters is proven by the regular mention in the notes of a thirty volume Soviet edition and even that is not complete because it can only include those letters that were kept by the recipients. The Soviet edition is also censored to remove things they didn’t feel appropriate, such as his dalliance with a Japanese woman on his trip to Sakhalin, and anything judged not politically sound. The edition I have has 365 pages dedicated to the letters along with a useful 22 page introduction and an excellent index which made going back to find things I wanted to refer to very easy. That the Soviet edition is censored is actually quite appropriate as Chekhov complains many times about what the censors in his own time had done to his stories and plays, some of which he regarded as particularly badly damaged so that the sense of the play is lost.

In Siberia on his way to the island of Sakhalin 1890

In 1890 Chekhov travelled to the penal colony of Sakhalin to survey the conditions and interview prisoners for what he explains in various letters is a payback to medicine. It eventually took him three years to write up his findings to appear in ten parts in one of the serious journals and then more work to produce a somewhat longer book. Presumably he wrote letters from his months on Sakhalin but none of them are included in this collection however there are quite a few describing his massive journey by horse drawn carriages and river boats right across Russia as Sakhalin is as far east as it is possible to go and he started in Moscow. The extract above highlights that even then Siberia was a place of exile for people that had offended the state in someway but his observation that now they can say what they like as where else would they be sent is to the point. On Sakhalin he was only allowed to interview a small number of the political prisoners but he still produced a comprehensive report and oddly his health, which was never very good appeared to improve during his time away from Moscow and St Petersburg. Although he was a doctor he seemed to have a blind spot regarding his own tuberculosis which he suffered from for decades, describing many occasions of ‘blood spitting’ although he was never formally diagnosed until 1897.

4 July 1888

The letters are also often quite humorous which lightens the tone overall against some of the more serious pieces or times when things are just plain going wrong like his descriptions of the disastrous first performance of The Seagull in 1896 or when his health issues cause significant problems which was quite often. One of the more interesting features is the continuation of his career as a doctor even as his fame as a playwright and story writer grew dramatically. As can be seen below this devotion to medicine had serious implications in his ability to write of travel to oversee productions of plays and talk to his various publishers. By the early 1890’s he had purchased an estate in Melikhovo and become the local doctor in preference to renting a home in Moscow which he had done since arriving there to study as a doctor.

16 July 1892

By the mid 1890’s however he had started travelling extensively in Europe and correspondence from various Italian, French and German cities amongst other countries he passed through bring a different outlook to the letters, some places he loved others he was glad to see the back of. There is also a lot of letters to women throughout the book some of which he probably came close to marrying but in fact he was a confirmed bachelor until just three years before he died when he finally married an actress he had come to know from her performances in his plays. Oddly his letters to women, even the ones he was particularly close to, are rarely romantic and quite often have some slight barb to them. The ones to his future wife, Olga, are mainly about her performances rather than anything else even though they actually lived almost 1000 miles apart most of their married lives as she was in Moscow and he was in Yalta to get a better climate for his tuberculosis. Chekhov was much happier on his own, hence his long time avoidance of marriage and indeed living apart suited him well.

13 June 1890

The letters are great fun to read and show much more of Chekhov’s character than would be found in a biography. I don’t think I could cope with the full thirty volumes, even assuming they were available in English, but this selection made an excellent way to pass a few evenings this week.

In Memoriam A.H.H. – Alfred, Lord Tennyson

By way of complete contrast with last weeks blog on happiness, this week I have read, to give the poem its full title, ‘In Memoriam Arthur H. Hallam’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson which is his long eulogy to his fellow student at Cambridge university who died in 1833 of a brain haemorrhage aged just twenty two. He started writing almost immediately after Hallam’s death and kept adding to the work over the ensuing years until it was finally published in 1850 by which time it had grown to 725 four line verses (2,900 lines in total) split into 131 cantos along with a prologue and epilogue although these first and last blocks of verse were not called that by Tennyson himself but rather have gained those titles over the years. Not only did this, one of Tennyson’s greatest works, finally get published in 1850 but in November that year he became Poet Laureate, a title he held until his death in 1892 the longest time that anyone has held the post.

Although the poem was published in 1850 Tennyson was still not satisfied with it and continued to tinker meaning that there are several versions produced by him over the next forty years and indeed the version included in my copy, and what is now regarded as the definitive version, was the one further amended by his son Hallam Tennyson after the poets death. For such a long poem on such a sad subject it is surprisingly readable once you get into the rhythm of the work. Each of the verses take the rhyming format of A B B A, meaning that the first and fourth lines rhyme as do the second and third, although sometimes the rhyme is rather forced as can be seen in the very first verse of the prologue. The middle lines are fine as they pair ‘face’ with ’embrace’ but lines one and four are rather shaky pairing ‘love’ with ‘prove’, I’m not sure what accent you would need for that to work but it is rather jarring and doesn’t get the work off to a flying start.

Strong Son of God, immortal Love,
Whom we, that have not seen thy face,
By faith, and faith alone, embrace,
Believing where we cannot prove;

There is, as you would expect for a Victorian English work of literature, a Christian emphasis to a significant part of the poem, but probably less than you would imagine. Tennyson is far more concerned about getting his feelings, along with those of his sister Emily who was engaged to Arthur Hallam at the time of his death, onto paper than expressing a strong religious position and the work is all the more powerful for it. It includes a very famous quote as the last two lines of canto twenty seven which can be seen in the image below as the third verse on the left hand side.

“Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’ actually shows Tennyson starting to come to terms with the loss of his friend and prospective brother in law and contrasts with the last lines of canto one ‘Behold the man who loved and lost, but all he was is overworn’. The rest of the text in the image above is part of the three cantos that deal with the first family Christmas after the death of Arthur Hallam, which eventually has the family able to sing together although somewhat reticently. Canto seventy eight deals with the following Christmas in 1834 where things are somewhat more normal although still strained and later in the poem he also covers the 1837 and 1838 Christmas festivities as he finds greater solace in his faith. The poem ends on a bright note with the marriage of another of his sisters, Cecilia, signifying the gradual coming to terms with loss of his friend.

Another famous line from the poem occurs in canto fifty six “Nature, red in tooth and claw” which came to be associated with the theory of natural selection as set out by Charles Darwin nine years later and indeed some parts of In Memoriam can be read as indicating that Tennyson was at least passingly familiar with the concept even then as he wrestles with his faith in the aftermath of his friends death. The quote isn’t entirely original to Tennyson but this is the first appearance of the full phrase.

My copy of the book is by the Folio Society and was printed in 1975. It is quarter bound in fine grained black leather with olive green cloth boards and printed on Abbey Mills antique laid paper which makes the whole book lovely to handle and a pleasure to read. The headings to the cantos are particularly attractive and the Bulmer typeface chosen for the text is very clear. It is pretty easy to get hold of this edition, at the time of writing there were four copies available on abebooks starting at just £6.60 plus postage. I probably still wouldn’t have picked it off the shelf if I hadn’t been in lock down due to coronavirus as a poem of almost three thousand lines is rather daunting, especially given the subject matter but it is definitely worth a read.

The Unpublished Spike Milligan Box 18 – Norma Farnes (Ed)

Norma was Spike’s agent, manager and friend for over thirty five years and as she explains in the introduction Spike had a comprehensive filing system based on numbered box files for work based items and lettered box files for personal things. Box 18 – IDEAS was a sort of dumping ground for things not finished or just ideas that would possibly be expanded later, every now and then he would go through it and pick out bits that he felt he could work on, sometimes they would go back in Box 18 untouched or partly modified others would make it through to completion, and some would just get discarded as unworkable. The problem with this book is that by definition anything in Box 18 was something that Spike didn’t regard as finished and frankly a large chunk of it shows why although there are definitely some gems hidden in here amongst the bits that really don’t work.

For those people reading this who aren’t familiar with the comic genius and deeply troubled man that was Spike Milligan he was born in 1918 and fought in Africa and then through Italy during WWII and was badly shell shocked during the conflict which would lead to frequent bouts of depression and more serious mental illness throughout the rest of his life. Despite this he was the leading light of 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s comedy in the UK as a founder and main script writer for the Goon Show and then his TV series Q which started in 1969. In fact in interviews included on the DVD’s of Q the Monty Python team recall seeing the first episodes and thinking that this was exactly what they had been planning, yet again Spike had got there first, The Pythons subsequently amended their format so that they didn’t appear to be copying Spike. He also wrote over eighty books including seven hilarious volumes of war diaries. Because of this pretty well everything that Spike thought should appear had done by the time of his death in 2002. I first came across his work whilst at primary school which a book of children’s poetry called a Dustbin of Milligan, I still have this rather battered due to being read almost to destruction paperback and have loved his writing ever since, still being able to quote the poems fifty years later.

The photo above is of the Goons, Peter Sellars, Harry Secombe and Spike during what Norma believes is a rehearsal although clearly from the ages of the actors it was towards the end of their appearances together and one of the gems in this book is a script for a Goon show in Spike’s handwriting. You can see his mind at work with the crossings out and alterations, The Goons would be regarded as surreal even now, back in the 1950’s there was nothing like them anywhere but the pressure of not only appearing but also writing most of the material led to Spike having the fist of his manic depressive attacks which saw him frequently in mental hospitals from then onwards.

The final quarter of the book reproduces some of Spike’s letters and again you wonder why some were chosen although the spat with Harrods over a unpaid bill is somewhat amusing. This section, along with the first part which has pages of his diaries is also clearly not something that came from Box 18 in fact probably only about half of what is in the book could logically have come from the IDEAS box, the rest is abstracted from other files although a couple of diary pages are rather poignant as Spike is obviously going through a difficult time again

All in all this book is interesting for a Spike Milligan fan but there is so much more of his to explore for a newcomer to his work, definitely read the war diaries, or his numerous books of poetry but this is not the place to start. I must have over twenty of his books purchased over the years along with the DVD re-issue of the five series of Q and would recommend all of them ahead of this amalgamation of bits which has been sitting on my shelves for several years before I finally opened it this week, I think I need to pick up the diaries again to remind myself of what Spike’s writing properly finished to his own satisfaction could really be like.

The Age of Scandal – T H White

20200519 The Age of Scandal

First published in 1950, this is my Folio Society edition from 1993, The Age of Scandal is one of White’s lesser known works as nowadays he is most famous for ‘The Once and Future King’ his series based on the tales of King Arthur by Mallory which in turn were adapted by Disney as ‘The Sword in the Stone’ and by Lerner and Loewe as their musical ‘Camelot’. This however is White as a historian although as Raey Tannahill says in her introduction.

It seems wise, therefore, to warn the reader that T.H. White is not – was not, even in his own day – an orthodox historian.

an excursion into eighteenth century history which is outrageously partisan, appallingly opinionated, one hundred percent Politically Incorrect and highly entertaining from first to last.

This is certainly the case, if you like your history of the latter half of the eighteenth century to be apparently written by the gossip pages of the tabloids then this is the book for you and whilst it isn’t a option I had previously considered there is no denying that if any part of, mainly British, history is ripe for such an approach then this is the period. White does stray abroad a little but mainly whilst describing events that include somebody from these isles, the main exception to this is the final chapter but I will come to that in due course. Scandal, gossip and tittle-tattle were the driving force amongst the upper and middle classes for this was the age of the opinionated talkers and the  great letter writers and they had much to talk and write about. The main source for White’s book is Horace Walpole, the youngest son of the Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole (or probably not as one of the scandals covered by White goes on to explain in considerable detail). To describe him as a prolific gossip would be an understatement, his collection of letters was eventually published by Yale University Press in forty-eight volumes and is available to browse online and White quotes him extensively.

The main talker of the time, I hesitate to call him a conversationalist because he preferred to dominate all conversations, was Dr Johnson and he duly gets a chapter all of his own. I hadn’t realised before reading this how sickly a child he was and how much he was still disabled into adulthood. This makes his rise in society at the time all the more remarkable. Another chapter is entitled ‘Men, Women and Herveys’ and this definitely falls in the one hundred percent Politically Incorrect category as it deals with the Hervey family whose males were all famously effeminate and/or eccentric during the time the book covers, Lord Hervey being ridiculed by Alexander Pope as his character Sporus in his poem Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot. The title of the chapter is however a contemporary quote from Lady Mary Wortley Montague who regarded mankind as split into those three categories as surely the Hervey family were not as everyone else, and it is one of these Herveys who is almost certainly the true father of Horace Walpole.

Other chapters are less specific such as ‘Royal Gossip’ which deals with the convoluted lives of George I, George II, George III and William IV, their actions, their courts, various wives and mistresses and anything else juicy that White feels like including. The following chapter though is probably the most enlightening regarding the reasons why the various characters exposed in this book behaved as they did and that is simply entitled ‘Bottom’.  It is probably best to quote White directly in his explanation of this term.

In the eighteenth century, but particularly under the Regency, a Gentleman was expected to have ‘Bottom’. It was a word of composite meaning, which implied stability, but also what the twentieth century calls ‘guts’. It meant being able to keep one’s head in emergencies, and, in a financial sense, that one was backed by capital, instead of being an adventurer. Bottom, in fact, was synonymous with courage, coolness and solidity.

This was an age of potentially sudden death either from accident or design, armed robbery was common and even Royalty were not immune from being held up by highwaymen but equally criminals were very much subject to capital punishment for crimes as little as burglary and these were quite a spectator entertainment. There were no anaesthetics, you would bear an operation with fortitude to be truly seen as one of the members of society and being to take your drink even in what now would be regarded as unbelievable excess was also to be expected. Dr Johnson is quoted as saying that he ‘had drunk three bottles of port without being the worse for it’ and two gentlemen are described in the book as having drunk ten bottles of champagne and burgundy between them at one sitting without it being regarded as exceptional. Needless to say a lot of people died young, if the alcohol didn’t get them than any of the various diseases prevalent at the time almost certainly would and the upper classes were trained to maintain the ‘stiff upper lip’ from childhood where violent and often sadistic masters would whip their pupils mercilessly.

I said earlier that I would get to the last chapter and this is one that sort of fits the rest of the book whilst feeling somewhat disjointed from it for it deals with the Marquis de Sade. I suspect that White felt that he couldn’t really write a book about his self described Age of Scandal without including such a notorious character but the way he does is surprisingly sympathetic which is out of sorts with everything that has gone before. However as Raey Tannahill puts it at the end of her introduction.

Whatever he may have lacked in scholarly discipline, Terence Hanbury White still deserves to be enjoyed as one of the last, unrepentant upholders of the rumbustious old tradition of Gibbon and Macaulay.

Wind, Sand and Stars – Saint-Exupéry

20200114 Wind, Sand and Stars 1

I think most people come across Antoine Marie Jean-Baptiste Roger de Saint-Exupéry, to give him his full name, via his massively popular novel The Little Prince which is one of the most translated books ever written, only beaten by The Bible and, depending on where you look, Pinocchio. Once you have heard of his work then quite often you discover that he was a French pioneer aviator, flying mail planes from 1926 and that he died in mysterious circumstances during WWII whilst on a reconnaissance flight looking for German troop movements in mid 1944. This lovely Folio Society edition concerns some of his flying experiences from a student through the 1930’s. He was to write another book covering his wartime flying called Flight to Arras and having finished this book I now need to get hold of a copy of that.

I’m not sure what I expected from this book, tales of daring do, a man against the elements in what was still very primitive machinery perhaps, what I had not allowed for was how much the philosopher and poet would shine through. Indeed near the beginning in the chapter called ‘The Elements’ which describes being caught in a storm in the Andes Saint-Exupéry makes it quite clear that my first thoughts are not to be realised

And so, in beginning my story of a revolt of the elements which I myself lived through I have no feeling that I shall write something which you will find dramatic.

In reality the story that follows is dramatic, but not because of excitable reportage which may have been the style selected by a lesser writer, but for the calm descriptions of each problem thrown at the pilot as the storm winds batter his plane around the sky. The various chapters whilst maintaining an internal consistent time-frame are not placed chronologically in the book. Chapter one does cover his days as a student pilot, or at least the preparations for his first flight as the pilot on a mail plane rather than his student days and as the book progresses you find him in South America and later the Sahara although in reality his three years as a desert pilot preceded his time across the Atlantic.

There is surprising little flying in the book at all, the longest chapter ‘Prisoner of the Sand’ starts out with a proposed flight from Paris to Saigon in December 1935 and does indeed have Saint-Exupéry and his mechanic in the air for several pages until the inevitable crash presaged by the chapter title has them down in an unknown part of the desert. The main part of the chapter concerns their attempts to attract rescue and treks away from the plane wreckage to seek water and nourishment almost all of which had been lost in the crash. But even here Saint-Exupéry deflates the tension pointing out early on that he is writing the story so they must have eventually found help, even  though it was at the last possible chance as they were almost dying from lack of water. This for me is the best chapter of the book, closely followed by ‘Men of the Desert’ which again is chiefly not concerned with flying but rather the people on the ground that he comes into contact with and almost half the chapter regards the freeing of a slave held by desert nomads and returning him to Marrakesh.

The final chapter, entitled ‘Barcelona and Madrid (1936)’ covers some of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. His involvement in this conflict was never as a participant unlike George Orwell whose time there led to his book Homage to Catalonia. In fact it is not clear exactly what he is doing there as he manages to be on both fronts and is vitriolic regarding the futility of the conflict.

There was not much to choose between Barcelona and its enemy, Saragossa; both were composed of the same swarm of communists, anarchists and fascists. The very men who collected on the same side were perhaps more different from one another than from their enemies. In civil war the enemy is inward; one as good as fights oneself. What else can explain the particular horror of this war in which firing-squads count for more that soldiers of the line?

and a little later

Here in Spain a man is simply stood up against a wall and he gives up his entrails to the stones of the courtyard. You have been captured. You are shot. Reason: your ideas were not our ideas.

Here again Saint-Exupéry is dealing with mankind as his subject, the title of the book is probably a little misleading, you expect Biggles but you get Descartes.

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On the 23rd July 1944 Saint-Exupéry’s most famous work The Little Prince was published for the first time. Eight days later he set off on a routine reconnaissance flight in a P-38 Lightning looking for German troops and was never seen again. Indeed no trace of his plane was to be found for over fifty years, first a bracelet was discovered in the nets of a Marseilles fisherman and that led to the discovery of a wrecked P-38 off the coast. Checking a recovered serial number proved the wreck to be his plane but there was no body. Near the end of The Little Prince the eponymous hero has to return to his own planet and amongst his last words are

I shall look as if I were dead; and that will not be true…

For over fifty years fans of Saint-Exupéry wanted that to be true of him also…


Don’t Tell Mum I Work on the Rigs – Paul Carter

Or to give the book its full title “Don’t Tell Mum I Work on the Rigs: She Thinks I’m a Piano Player in a Whorehouse”. A series of real life stories of life on oil rigs around the world in some of the most dangerous places you could ever hope not to go to.

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Carter has written a really funny summary of some of his exploits in fifteen years working on oil rigs around the world and the scrapes he has got into whilst doing it. The book has a prologue with an extract from chapter nine which has him in business class on a scheduled flight from Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea; unfortunately with Amoebic Dysentery which strikes just after take-off. Now there is definitely nothing inherently funny about an explosive attack of dysentery, especially in a crowded aeroplane, but the way he writes about it is so vivid that you cannot help laughing at the situation.

The first chapter relates to his childhood and initial links to oil, He had a rough time in his early years with a domineering father who was in the RAF, eventually his mother left him taking the two children with her. She moved the family to Aberdeen and got a job in the oil industry where she would meet her second husband and subsequently got posted to Australia which is where Carter spent his adolescence and eventually some dead end jobs but he wanted to work on rigs. Ironically after his father left the RAF he also started working on rigs and Carter would sometimes meet people who had worked with him. As he says the work is all over the world but the actual people doing the work form a surprisingly small community and there are regular characters that keep turning up no matter where he is working.

In amongst the stories about offshore and land rigs, crazy holding accommodation and the horror stories you also get to learn a little about the oil business and definitely a lot about why being involved may be lucrative but also extremely dangerous. Carter has worked on all sorts and after proving his abilities has been freelance for four years at the time he covers in the book. He is obviously good enough at what he does to be wanted by numerous companies no matter what type of rig is involved.

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We go on a bounce around the world starting in Australia with a land rig in the Western Australia goldfields back in the early 1990’s where he learnt the trade as a labourer, or roughneck, and worked his way up and then mainly in the Asian oilfields. Apart from the dysentery, and the local wildlife trying to kill you this was relatively safe until it got to time away from the rig when men who work in a dangerous and frequently deadly job chill out by doing dangerous and sometimes deadly ways of not being at work. The wilder the country the more dangerous it was, not just from the locality but also the often poorly maintained equipment such as ancient helicopters.

Every time I read Upstream, an oilfield newspaper, there’s an article like this

Bumfuck Nowhere: all nine passengers and crew died yesterday, when a twelve seater Sikorsky helicopter operated by Doom Air crashed in a really big ball of flames shortly after take off from Bumfuck Nowhere regional airport. Witnesses say the helicopter fell for, oh wow, ages before vaporising into the jungle at 1592 miles an hour.

He also worked the Gulf and South America but the stand out awful places were Russia which  was cold, so very cold and really primitive and worst of the worst Nigeria which was so dangerous to work in that getting out alive was regarded as a bonus. Nowhere in Nigeria was without armed guards when not on the rig especially on the trip to and from the airport, his two predecessors for the job he had there had both been killed by fake taxi drivers before they had even made it to the camp for the first time.

But it’s not just about the oilfields you also get the ups and downs of his personal life and the surprising sideline he ended up doing which was in advertising in Sydney in his downtime between jobs. This is probably what honed his way with words and makes the book such a pleasure to read.

This is not a book for the easily shocked or offended, but you probably guessed that from the prologue so at least you have been warned. I loved it and need to get his follow up “This is Not a Drill”