Thursday, January 29, 2009

09.03 The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers

The Riddle Of The Sands - A Record Of Secret Service (1903) by Erskine Childers
Pbk, Penguin, 336 p.

A review of this wonderful novel would not be complete without a precis of Childers life. Erskine Childers (1870-1922) was a member of the last generation of true imperial British. He fought in the Boer War and was instrumental (largely through this book) in getting the British government to recognize the German threat prior to WWI. A lifelong sailor, he often took hes boats down through the Frisian Islands and the Baltic (see map below) with his wife and brother. Later in life Childers became involved with the struggle for Irish Nationalism, smuggling arms to the precursor to the IRA. In 1922 after the beginning of the civil war between Sinn Féin and the IRA he was arrested, tried and quickly executed while an appeal was pending. The apocryphal story of his execution was that he shook hands with the young firing squad and ended his life with the words, "Come closer lads, it will be easier for you."

The Riddle of the Sands begins with a letter received by Carruthers in London. Carruthers is a self described "peevish dandy" who is stuck in London working at his Foreign Office job even though most everyone else has left the city for the summer. The letter is from his old schoolmate Davies, a slightly lower class but friendly fellow whom he knew slightly. Davies asks him to come out to join him on his yacht on the Baltic for some sailing and duck shooting.

Carruthers decides to go down thinking of long leisurely days in his "cool white ducks and neat blue serge" sipping champers in the sun. He is quickly disabused of that notion. Davies has a small boat, the Dulcibella, "something over thirty feet in length and nine in beam". Carruthers is initially skeptical about even staying on what with the cramped quarters and actual sailing worked he is forced to do. Gradually he effects a transformation of attitude mainly because of Davies super positive attitude and the beauty of the areas that they are sailing.

The two men slowly get a routine together over the first third of the novel but it seems Davies has had an ulterior motive for getting Carruthers out to Germany. He has some suspicions about some men he met earlier and professes to have had an attempt made on his life. They agree to leave the Baltic and return the the Frisian Islands to reconnoiter further. Germany has a small coastline on the North Sea with a line of small islands just offshore which are backed by extensive sandy shoals. There is virtually no harbour or room for large vessels. It is into this area that the young adventurers explore.

I don't want to give too much away because the "mystery" is slight. It is the journey that these fellows take that is so great to read. There is a lot of sailing and sailing terminology but never so much as to make the book bog down. This is supposed to be one of the first examples of the spy novel and it reminded me in a lot of ways of the writing of John Buchan (The 39 Steps, Greenmantle).

Top notch.

So I grappled with the niceties of that delicate craft; smarting eyes, chafed hands, and dazed brain all pressed into the service, whilst Davies, taming the ropes the while, shouted into my ear the subtle mysteries of the art; that fidgeting ripple in the luff of the mainsail, and the distant rattle from the hungry jib--signs that they are starved of wind and must be given more; the heavy list and wallow of the hull, the feel of the wind on your cheek instead of your nose, the broader angle of the burgee at the masthead--signs that they have too much, and that she is sagging recreantly to leeward instead of fighting to windward.


Olman Feelyus said...

I've heard this guy's name a few times, but never really knew anything about him. A sad end to his life. The book sounds really appealing, very conducive to escaping into another world. I love sea-going books, despite my lack of actual knowledge of a lot of the vocabulary and processes that take place in those books. I'll be checking this out down the road.

Buzby said...

I agree that the book does sound very appealing but I am hesitant to take it up after reading O'Brian's Master & Commander.

Redwing said...

You've whet my whistle, lad! Great review...

This is another book, like O'Brian's, that I keep stumbling across. I reckon I'll add it to the list.

That passage you pulled reminds me very much of Joshua Slocum's writing. You should definitely pick up his classic Sailing Alone Around the World.

This year is shaping up to be the Year of the Sea! Keep it up, me hearties!

Redwing said...

Incidentally, the dimensions of the boat you describe here are exactly the same size as mine. And I can't imaging going sailing during a war in such a small boat.

Crumbolst said...

You guys should read Moby Dick. It's the Moby Dick of this genre. Don't be wimps.

Redwing said...

Sheeyit. I already read that shit, son.

And this is the Erskine Childers Hour. So shut the F up about your Herman Melville. Herman? Sheeeyit. Try Mary Melville. Bidge don't know shit about whaling, either.

Try smuggling weapons on the Redwing with Nazis crawling up your ass, no ice-cold Budweiser in the ice chest, and no GPS. Sheeeyit.