Patrick O’Brian

Patrick O’Brian is the author of a life of Picasso and of a series of naval tales. His study of Joseph Banks is due out next spring.

He lyeth in his teeth

Patrick O’Brian, 18 April 1996

One of this book’s chief virtues is candour. If John Cummins first saw Drake as the knightly figure sans peur et sans reproche who had been held up for admiration to so many generations, it must have grieved him to find how far upwards the feet of clay could reach. But he states the facts with a fine impartiality. This account will have nothing to do with myths such as Drake’s drum (a 19th-century invention, it appears) or the game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe or Drake as the conquering hero in the battle against the Armada; yet even so it is by no means that dreary thing, a debunking book.

Dirty Linen

Patrick O’Brian, 4 August 1994

Both these books are concerned with the sea in the days of the sailing Navy and with the nature of command, so much enhanced in distant waters when communication with government might take half a year rather than half a minute. Drake executed Doughty in Patagonia without a qualm; or at least without being disturbed for doing so when he came home.

Happy in Heaven

Patrick O’Brian, 10 February 1994

In France there have been many studies of Saint-Exupéry since his death in 1944; the five books he published are continually kept in print; and Le Petit Prince is to be found everywhere. In England his following was never so great, and although he remains a very well-known name he has not attracted anything like as much critical or biographical attention: this book, however, provides a full account of his life, with a good deal of information that is not to be found elsewhere.

Some More Sea

Patrick O’Brian, 10 September 1992

The last few years have been rich in Oxford Books, and I have read three of them: 18th-Century Verse and 18th-Century Women Poets, both edited with great skill and erudition by Roger Lonsdale, and Travel verse, by Kevin Crossley-Holland. When I say ‘read them’ I mean I have dipped copiously, as one usually does with anthologies, sometimes taking years to digest the whole. They all addressed a finite but considerable field (there were many more women, much better poets, than I had supposed) and it seemed to me that they did so most successfully. The fourth to come my way was the Book of the Sea, and this time I read the whole collection right through, together with the preface; perhaps this was not the cleverest way of dealing with the book.

Das Boot

Patrick O’Brian, 30 August 1990

The first of these books is of a kind that rarely comes into the hands of a general reader: it is a highly-detailed account of the submarine war seen from the German side and it was written by a Kriegsmarine officer after the war at the request of the Admiralty and the United States Navy Department. Fregatenkapitän Hessler commanded a U-boat in 1940 and 1941; he then served on the staff of the Flag Officer, Submarines; and for the purpose of writing this book he and the German naval officers who helped him were given access to the War Diaries and the primary sources of the Kriegsmarine. Hessler was also Dönitz’s son-in-law. Few men could have been better-informed; and as he was methodical, conscientious, untiring, he and his assistants produced a work in three volumes, abundantly illustrated with charts and diagrams, of the first importance for anyone interested not only in the strategy, tactics and technology of submarine war as it was then fought and the impact of intelligence upon it, but also in the day-to-day running of a U-boat and life aboard.


Patrick O’Brian, 10 May 1990

Anyone who has travelled even as far as Paris, threading with more or less success the Kafkaesque corridors of Heathrow or God preserve us Gatwick, will agree that a man’s soul has to be riveted to his body to survive it. What then are we to say to Fernao Mendes Pinto, who travelled with scarcely a pause except for being captured 13 times and 17 times sold into slavery, going from the Ethiopia of Prester John to the Japan of the Daimyos and St Francis Xavier?

Great Encounters

Patrick O’Brian, 11 January 1990

John Keegan’s book is about the principles, strategy and tactics of warfare at sea and their evolution as it is exemplified in four great battles, Trafalgar, Jutland, Midway, and a critical period in that long struggle the Battle of the Atlantic. It is a strangely mixed book, some parts being quite remarkably good and quite unhackneyed, others dealing with matters that have been handled again and again, and doing so with no great originality.

Fourteen Thousand Dried Penguins

Patrick O’Brian, 9 November 1989

In his introduction to Last Voyages Professor Edwards almost apologises for voyages as a form of literature, partly because the New Criticism ignored them; yet he may be battering at an open door, for surely the great mass of readers, who do not give a damn for the New Criticism, have never ceased to agree that ‘these narratives … are a special kind of writing with distinctive values of its own.’ And it is likely that they will welcome this scholarly presentation of three of the most interesting of their time. They are by definition tragic, but two at least illustrate the editor’s views on the interaction of literature, voyages and imperialism particularly well.

Fire and Ice

Patrick O’Brian, 20 April 1989

William Golding’s new novel, Fire Down Below is the third volume of a trilogy, the other parts being Rites of Passage and Close Quarters. The trilogy is about a voyage to Sydney in 1813, and a bald, merely literal account might run like this … On the first page the hero appears, Edmund FitzHenry Talbot, an unformed young man of good family who is going out to help govern New South Wales in an aged line-of-battle ship, Captain Anderson commander, and who has been given a book in which to record his journey by his godfather, an influential peer. The ship also carries some other passengers, the more or less genteel in little cabins aft and the emigrants in the forecastle. With the exception of about fifty pages the trilogy consists of Talbot’s account, and in it he describes the cabin-passengers, the officers, the servants and an occasional emigrant or foremast hand. He pays great attention to class, finding most of the passengers and officers rather common, the exceptions being Miss Granham, a governess in her thirties whose father had been a canon; Mr Prettiman, a social philosopher, something like Shelley in background and political opinions but middle-aged; and a Lieutenant Deverel. Talbot is strongly conscious of his social superiority; he shouts or yells for his servant; he very soon lets it be known that his godfather is a great man and that the great man will see his journal; and he is capable of congratulating the First Lieutenant, Summers, who has been promoted from the lower deck, ‘on imitating to perfection the manners and speech of a somewhat higher station in life than the one you was born to’. It is true that later he acknowledges the words were ‘insufferable’ and enters into a warm and indeed emotional friendship with Charles Summers: but the remark gives the general tone. He is soon known as Lord Talbot.

Battle of Britain

Patrick O’Brian, 7 July 1988

All these books are concerned with what the Spaniards once called the Felicissima Armada and what the English still, with a quiet smile, call the Invincible Armada (apparently it was Burleigh who first thought of the word, shortly after the event). They differ very much in approach, in emphasis, and even in conclusion – Mia Rodrigues-Salgado, for example, feels that the enterprise increased Philip II’s reputation, particularly in the north – but they all of course agree in trying to place the disastrous voyage in its context.’

Half a pirate

Patrick O’Brian, 22 January 1987

Captain Kidd, though by no means the most successful of the pirates, was certainly the best-known. His name means piracy to this day, and it is a little strange to see it used in the title of the present book as though he took part in this war on the virtuous side. Yet such is the case.


A touch of the cat

9 November 1989

Mr Hayes is not pleased with my saying that Dr Dunn’s editing of The Nagle Journal is intrusive (Letters, 7 December 1989); he feels that the common reader needs ‘a minimum of bracketed asides in the understanding of recondite terms’, and I quite agree. But Dr Dunn and Mr Hayes have a lower opinion of the common reader than I. To take just one example, they think the poor fellow needs...

When Meredith Potter, the producer, asks Stella, the heroine of An Awfully Big Adventure, what she thinks J.B. Priestley’s Dangerous Corner is about, she says: ‘Love. People loving...

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Peter Campbell, 5 January 1989

I never knew – I’m not sure I’m pleased to know – that a gull fed an Alka Seltzer sandwich will explode. That, along with a lot of information about what is done to a...

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Peter Campbell, 7 May 1987

That Patrick O’Brian would write a good book about the early life of Joseph Banks was to be expected. Banks combined the enthusiasm and practical competence of one of O’Brian’s...

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