13 NOVEMBER 1999, Page 60

Spankers and scuttle-butts

Hugh Massingberd

BLUE AT THE MIZZEN by Patrick O'Brian HarperCollins, £16.99, pp. 262

In the course of a peripatetic, not to say profligate, life I have recklessly rid myself of far too many books. For some reason, though, a slim, unopened volume entitled The Origins of Some Naval Terms and Cus- toms (lovingly compiled by a no-nonsense naval uncle of mine after he fell victim to the 'Geddes Axe' in the 1920s) has remained, steadfastly and stubbornly in the best seafaring tradition, on my shelves. Then, the other day, the reason revealed itself: I finally took the plunge into the 'Aubrey/Maturin novels' of the acclaimed author Patrick O'Brian and found myself clutching for definitions of spankers, making the mole, loblolly, futtock-shrouds, fid-plates, chocks, scuttle-butts and so forth — not to mention the title of the latest yarn, which indicates that Captain Jack attains flag rank at last.

While my uncle's invaluable handbook helped me to come to terms with the tech- nicalities, I inevitably felt rather at sea through not having read the previous 19 volumes in this roman fleuve. As the proverbial Irishman observes when asked for directions, 'Well, now, if it were me, I wouldn't be starting from here ...'

Of course, I had been meaning to give O'Brian a go for ages. Fans had urged me along the lines of 'Loving Flashman as you do, you'll lap it up.' I did indeed lap it up, with intense pleasure and profound admi- ration, but the familiar bracketing with George MacDonald Fraser (from the same fortunate stable, incidentally) does not strike me as apt — at least on the flimsy evidence of this fairly uneventful novel which skirts round the revolutionary poli- tics of South America in post-Napoleonic times. There is little in the way of dash or derring-do (doubtless the earlier adven- tures were overflowing with action) and the humour is a long way removed from Flashy's Wodehousian rollicking. Gentle digs at Captain Aubrey's engaging devotion to the pleasures of the table and Dr Maturin's unseaworthy clumsiness yielded smiles rather than belly-laughs. The only time I felt the spirit of Flashy hovering was when the foul-mouthed, pox-ridden but good-hearted Duke of Clarence (later 'the Sailor King' William IV) was sounding off in Black's Club: 'Roger, you whoreson bug- ger, where is that fucking coffee?' Other than on royal lips, though, the f-word is blanked out and, as for the deed itself, for- get it. At the risk of sounding like Canon Throbbing (who complains, in Alan Ben- nett's Habeas Corpus, that 'they always miss out the best bits'), I couldn't help thinking that Dr Maturin, for all his scientific view of anatomy, might have noticed something other than the curve of his fellow botanist Christine Wood's 'long, long legs' when they swim naked in an African swamp.

But enough of odious comparisons. Patrick O'Brian writes beautifully in a bewitching style that is all his own. He is a master of measured, beguilingly archaic language that transports you to the early 19th century with consummate ease and confidence. I really didn't mind that not much happens in Blue at the Mizzen — at one stage the doldrums are unashamedly discussed — and was quite content to wal- low in the grace and authority of the descriptive and reflective prose. The asides alone are more than worth the cover price — such as Dr Maturin's observation about juntas:

Quite often those combinations for a com- mon aim bring out the worst in men, they generally having private ends in far greater mass than the common aim.

I am hooked. I long to know more about the mysterious Maturin, the polyglot spy- medic, and his brother Fellow of the Royal Society, bluff Jack Aubrey. I must now begin at the beginning with Master and Commander.

Finally, a word of warning. Do not emu- late the hospital visitor I heard about who presented a recent amputee with an O'Brian novel. This, too, has a vivid ampu- tation scene — straight from the shoulder, in more ways than one.

sauce down the front to get the full effect.'