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The Patrick O'Brian Newsletter: Volume 3, Issue 1

March 1994

Editor's Column

In this issue of the Newsletter Patrick O'Brian gives his personal reflections on the triumphant American publicity tour last November for The Wine Dark Sea, two gruelling weeks in New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Boston that pushed the book onto several bestseller lists.

But he is too modest to recount the astonishing outpouring of enthusiasm, gratitude and effection that marked the many readings and receptions along the way. Neither the Princeton Club in New York nor the National Archives in Washington, D.C., had ever drawn such numbers to a lecture, and the Boston Athenaeum was filled to capacity as well.

At a book signing at Crown Books in McLean, Virginia, the line stretched literally out the door, and one man admitted to having driven all the way from South Dakota just to get O'Brian's autograph.

Forthcoming editions...
Slated for May is The Golden Ocean, a splendid precursor to the Aubrey/Maturin series based on Anson's circumnavigation of the world in 1740. Also in May, the previously announced volume of critical essays about O'Brian and his work, including a charming autobiographical essay; and for something very different indeed, read O'Brian's magisterial biography of Picasso, to be published in June in paperback.

In August the 1995 Patrick O'Brian Calendar will be in the shops, and in September a collection of short fiction, The Rendezvous and Other Stories. In November the entire Aubrey/Maturin series will be made available in hardcover. Finally, the eagerly awaited Aubrey/Maturin #17 will be published in April 1995, and there is a strong likelihood that the author will agree to visit the United States again in connection with that publication.

A Word from Patrick O'Brian: Recollections of America

POB autographs

Patrick O'Brian signs books at L.J. Harri Nautical Booksellers in Boston while owner Catherine Degnon looks on. (Photo credit: Vernon Doucette)

A New World, they say; and indeed a surprisingly new world it is for an encrusted European like myself. My wife and I have just come back from a strenuous but exceedingly interesting tour that took us to New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Boston, and Plum Island, and although we were already acquainted with the States we were struck all over again by the difference between the two—what shall I say? Civilizations is too strong a word; perhaps cultures, or societies—and we came away with an impression of freshness, of far greater friendliness, hospitality and general kindness, a world with much less dust, formality and constraint.

It is true that our journey had as pretty a beginning as any friend of America could desire. We landed from our flying machine still bemused by our attempt at working out the time in New York, and stood by the wrong carousel for a long while, growing sadder and more lonely in the empty airport. Eventually a strikingly handsome young woman came and said that if we were looking for luggage from the London flight there was a better place over here. We followed her, and there, entirely by themselves, were our bags, solemnly going round and round. I found a trolley, but it scorned by paper dollars: the dear young woman fed it coins, refused my greenback, saying "This is on me; welcome to America," and hurried off.

The rest of our visit followed much the same pattern. It is true that we were particularly well-introduced to some of the museums—a friend of my editor's in the Frick let us see the splendours of the upper rooms and gave my wife a portfolio of glorious reproductions when we left, while an expert in the Natural History Museum produced skins of our local birds of prey (we live in the south of France) so that I could show my editor Bonelli's eagle, Eleanora's falcon and the serpent-eating short-toed eagle, and he showed me the oil-bird he had seen in Trinidad; while in Philadelphia a very kind and thoughtful curator had laid out some of the Academy of Natural Science's wonders for us, including some noble Audubon specimens, an ivory-billed woodpecker and some of Napoleon's hair. But even when there was no particular introduction we were very well received, and I shall not easily forget the civility of the ladies at the information desk of the National Gallery at Washington and their desire to be helpful.

Washington, that splendid, white, many-pillared and most welcoming city: I will not speak of private hospitality apart from saying that there I ate an unparalleled emerald-green mint sauce with my lamb, and in another house some remarkable venison; but I will record that the most amiable of Supreme Court judges invited me to his chambers and enabled me to hear something of the Court in action—deeply impressive, particularly the language of Justice O'Connor in handing down a unanimous judgement to the effect that a woman did not have to prove dreadful psychological damage before she could sue for sexual harassment—while a senator who liked my books was so very kind as to show me the Capitol.

But what shall I say of Boston, that beautiful, far more domestic city, and its noble fashion of receiving strangers? I was invited to address a meeting at the USS Constitution Museum and to be shown the frigate by a distinguished admiral, who later fed us Indian pudding, among other delights, the only pudding I met with in the States. Here I was presented with a great copper bolt from that glorious vessel's hull, fastened to a piece of her deck planking; and the next day, after I had spoken to a gathering at the Athenaeum, Luis Mardin gave me a copper sheathing nail that he had rescued from the lime-encrusted remains of the Bounty off Pitcairn Island, where the mutineers burnt her two hundred years ago.

Boston brings to mind not only the Common (our windows looked out on to it), the Old State House and a raccoon seen by night among the Navy Yard's dustbins, but also creature comforts—clam chowder, the best cod I have ever eaten in my life, and yet another splendid dinner given by my editor's family—and the New England landscape, for the next day (our last in America for this visit) we drove up with our infinitely patient and long-suffering publisher to Plum Island to see birds. We had already seen hooded mergansers and snow-geese, not to mention a sharp-shinned hawk at Jamaica Bay, and this time I had great hopes of a loon. On and on we travelled, past charming villages of white clapboarded houses, to this splendid reserve, where expert guides in a robust vehicle took us in hand, driving out over perfect wader and wildfowl country—perfect, except that we had noticed a slight mist, and it seemed to be increasing. We saw yellow legs, black duck, Canada geese very close to, horned larks on the path itself, even an American bittern, and snow buntings as the mist thickened and we reached a broad stretch of shrouded water. There had been loons there yesterday, said one guide, and only fifty yards out; there would certainly be even more tomorrow, said the other.

We turned back, seeing a hen harrier, a tree sparrow and an enormous great blue heron on the way, and we refreshed our spirits with clam chowder at Newburyport (a dish that is served in Heaven, every Friday) and so to Boston airport and a reluctant farewell, the journey finishing with a strong determination to return and only two reservations: a wish that the States possessed rather more in the way of suet puddings and a slightly greater population of loons. Apart from that, any travel agent may apply to me for an unlimited flow of superlatives, all sincere, all certified by oath.

Reader's Questions

Q. I can find no trace of the word "gackle." Jack admonished Mowett, temporarily commanding the Surprise in The Far Side of the World, to anchor off the island and be sure not to gackle the cable. He mentioned it twice as I recall. Not only is the ENK [Encyclopedia of Nautical Knowledge] mute on the term, but the OED shows no trace of anything like it. I am guessing that it relates to the use of chafing gear, mainly because I can think of nothing else he could have meant.

A. Gackling does indeed mean the provision of chafing gear. It is still used colloquially, and I think I have seen it once or twice in an 18th century order book.

Q. Please explain the meaning of the term "marthambles," the sailors' disease that Dr. Maturin is often concerned with aboard ship. I have looked in many dictionaries and medical texts for such a term.

A. Marthambles is a very fine word that I found in a quack's pamphlet of the late 17th or early 18th century advising a nostrum that would cure not only "the strong fires" and a whole variety of more obvious diseases but the marthambles too. I have never seen it anywhere else and it has escaped the OED.

Q. Please explain "admiral of the red" (or the white or the blue). Does one take precedent over the other by merit or pecking order or are the vacancies filled in turn?

A. The Royal Navy had admirals of three colors and nine kinds: this arose in the 17th century when the huge fleets fighting the Dutch were divided into three squadrons. The white in the van, the red in the middle, and the blue in the rear, and each of these squadrons was in its turn divided into three parts, each commanded by a vice-admiral in the van, an admiral in the middle, and a rear-admiral in the rear.

The huge fleets vanished in the 18th century but the ranks remained: promotion to them from the post-captains' list was strictly by seniority, not by merit, and the steps in ascending order were rear-admiral of the blue, rear-admiral of the white, rear-admiral of the red; vice-admiral of the blue, vice-admiral of the white (Nelson's highest rank), vice-admiral of the red; admiral of the blue, admiral of the white, admiral of the red: though this last gentleman held the rank of admiral of the fleet until 1805, when the admiral of the red came into being. But there was yet another kind of admiral: some officers, on reaching the top of the captains' list, were promoted rear-admiral, but to no particular squadron. These unfortunates were known, colloquially, as yellow admirals.

The Press Gang

On the threat of war, the government usually took immediate action to mobilize the navy. Press warrants were issued from the Admiralty to the relative officers. Marines and the crews of guardships were sent into ports to form the nucleus of the press gangs. A bounty was proclaimed for all seamen who would enlist voluntarily, and an embargo was placed on trade, preventing British ships from leaving port for the immediate future, until the press gangs had time to do their work.

The first task of a press gang ashore was to find seamen; this was usually done by searching the streets and the seamen's favorite taverns, sometimes their homes. Local knowledge was useful here, and often the gang tried to recruit at least one member who was familiar with the area. However, there was a certain risk in this, and such men were often in severe danger. In 1811, one Jackey White of Hull was attacked by a crowd at his lodgings, and he had to be rescued by soldiers.

Having found men, the gang had to attempt to identify them as seamen. If they had recently left their ships they would be dressed in seaman's clothes, and the gang would have no problem. But if the seamen had warning, they would change into the 'long clothes' of landmen. The gang would approach likely looking men, and sometimes take them to a rendezvous for questioning. Violence was a part of their way of life, and they were not gentle in their approach.

The gang often inspected men's hands for traces of tar, a sure sign of a seaman.

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