memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

What do you suppose that the late Charlton Heston (actor in epic movies and President of the ultra-right-wing National Rifle Association) and Keith Richard (lead guitarist of the veteran rock band The Rolling Stones and improbable survivor of life-long drug-abuse) have in common? Almost nothing except for an admiration and enthusiasm for the books of Patrick O’ Brian – they’re both P.O.B. freaks!   As is Mark Knopfler, another ace-guitarist, who pays homage to P.O.B on his Sailing to Philadelphia album – a glass of wine with you sir.

I’m reading for the third time the whole of the Maturin/Aubrey Roman Fleuve by Patrick O’Brian – there are twenty books and every one of them is great and I’m writing this as someone who has devoured his way (like a maggot) through Tolstoy, Joseph Heller, Anthony Powell, Martin Amis, George Eliot … (half an hour later) … Thomas De Quincy, Lawrence Sterne, Compton Mackenzie, Proust and Malraux, Calvino and De Lampadusa, Pushkin and Shakespeare, Eça de Queiroz and Zola and so on and so forth.

For me the O’Brian books are essential comfort reading. For example, I take a couple volumes whenever I go into hospital for a brain operation. I think he must be one of my favourite authors. He has a cult following, mostly blokes, who became addicted to him from the first hit Master and Commander in 1970 right up to Blue at the Mizzen written in 1999 and each one is a winner. Queues of haggard middle-aged, middle-class men hung around their local Waterstone’s bookshop waiting for their annual Patrick O’Brian fix. My brother Gam (also an addict) once jokingly mentioned that there was a club in North London for «Patrick O’Brian widows» whose motto was: Fuck Patrick O’Brian.

I’ve got to the beginning of the last book (Blue at the Mizzen): Jack Aubrey and Maturin find themselves at Funchal on the Island as the Royal Navy called Madeira during the 18th century. Jack has just asked Maturin, a brilliant linguist, to translate for him at the meeting with the Governor of the island:

–              Interpret, is it? As I told you before I do not speak – not as who should say speak – Portuguese. Still less do I understand the language when it is spoke. No man born of woman has ever understood spoken Portuguese, without he is a native or brought up to comprehend that strange blurred muffled indistinct utterance from a very early, almost toothless, age. Anyone with a handful of Latin – even Spanish or Catalan – can read it without much difficulty but to comprehend even the drift of the colloquial, the rapidly muttered version…


Towards the end of his life and career, O’Brian’s contribution to English Literature was acknowledged and he won the prestigious Heywood Hill Literary Prize, was awarded the CBE and received an honorary doctorate at Trinity College, Dublin. He also made a book tour of the United States. During one of his stops in the tour, at the end of his talk, a lady started gushing praise for his work; O’Brian leant gently forward:

–              What you say is very kind, Madam, but have you ever considered just exactly how much your opinion is worth?

(Oh how cruel, how cruel …)

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